Speaking Starbucks and a Sociology of Customer Service

In a recent column in the Westport News, titled “I Flunked Starbucks,” Judith Marks-White spoofs the language of Starbucks. In a familiar refrain, she talks about how she doesn’t speak Starbucks.

Me: “I’d like a small regular coffee, please.”
Barista (confirming my order): “One tall espresso.”
Me: “No, a small coffee,” I repeated. “Not tall.”
Barista: “Tall is small,” she said. “And, we don’t say `coffee.'”

She keeps the joke going for a few hundred more words. She ends with a bit more dialogue: “Can’t I just have a regular cup of coffee like a normal person?” I asked.
“This is Starbucks. We don’t do normal.”

While this piece is ostensibly about language and about an “unfortunate encounter,” it is really about the role of the employee — the barista — in the brand socializing project. Starbucks talks a lot about customer service, but the baristas also work as teachers and gate-keepers.

What Starbucks sells, in part, is belonging, and creating its own language is a crucial part of this process. Several years ago Jack Skilkret, a psychology professor at Anne Arnudel Community College in Maryland, rightly observed of Starbucks, “People go there and they fell like they’re getting membership in a little club.”

Language helps to create the club.  In order to be a part of the club, you have to speak the language. That is how insider groups typically work. The “baristas” are there to let you know that you don’t belong — you aren’t part of the club. That is what that barista is telling Marks-White. She doesn’t belong. The barista though is trying to coach her, to give her some tips in talking Starbucks. That is the employee’s role in this consumer narrative — to isolate outsiders, but also to give them the tools — and words — to belong if they want to join the club. Marks-White declines and goes home.

So what Starbucks sells, in part, is belonging. Language is key to this proposition. Outsiders don’t speak Starbucks’ insiders do. (And some loyalists have gone a step further and posted on-line guides to speaking Starbucks.)

Finally, remember Starbucks sells a mass — a mass customized product — to a broad mainstream audience, so the barriers to entry to the Starbucks clubs can’t be and aren’t too steep. Really, it isn’t that hard to learn how to speak Starbucks, and that too is part of the point.

The Morning Buzz

Years ago the Wall Street Journal did a study of caffeine and major coffee brands. Fast Company did a similar study recently. Both uncovered the same results.

A can of Coke or Mountain Dew has about 50 milligrams of caffeine.

A 16 oz. cup of McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee has 140 miligrams of caffeine.

A 12 oz. cup of Caribou coffee has 180 milligrams.

And a “tall” Starbucks has a whopping 240 milligrams of caffeine, double what you get at McDonalds.

The only drink on the commercial market with more caffeine is Jolt.

By the way, caffeine intoxication — the jitters — starts to kick in at 300 milligrams — right about what you get with a grande Starbucks.

That means you would have to buy almost two full cups of McDonald’s coffee to get to the same caffeine bang for your buck as Starbucks.

Now, as I understand it, once you get used to elevated amounts of caffeine, you need to keep getting them. In other words, it is hard to go from Starbucks — and 240 milligrams of caffeine — to McDonald’s — and its relatively underwhelming amount of caffeine. This could, then, keep you coming back to Starbucks.

And caffeine counts are no accidents. In other words, the amount of caffeine has little to do with the beans and everything to do with the preparation — the grind of the beans and the amount of water used.

By Bryant Simon

The Cost of a Cup of Coffee

How much money do you spend on coffee every month? The average cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks is around $2. If you drink two cups a day over the course of 30 days, that comes out to $120! Chances are good if you work a 9-5 job, you drink a lot more than that to get through the daily grind.

How can you save money on coffee? One great alternative to going to Starbucks is to head to your local grocery store. Buy your own coffee and brew it at home or at work. You can even purchase Starbucks coffee at many grocery stores. Odds are even if your local grocery store doesn’t stock Starbucks coffee, they stock something else that is equally good. When you purchase the loose coffee grounds, you save a huge amount of money. Preparing your coffee at home or work is fast and easy with a drip machine or a French press, and you can make it exactly the way you want it.

If you want to save even more money on coffee, one of the best options is to hunt around for coffee coupons. You can find coupons in newspapers and other print media, but it’s much easier to search online through sales and circulars. If you keep up with weekly store ads (CVS ad in my case), you will find a lot of amazing discounts on fresh coffee beans and coffee grounds. If you time your shopping trips so that you can make use of the coupons, you could cut your costs even more.

Just how much can you save? A lot of Starbucks coffee that you can buy at the store comes out to around $13 per pound. The Specialty Coffee Association of America says it takes around a pound of coffee to make forty-eight 6-ounce cups. Do the math, and that comes out to around 27 cents per cup! Multiply that across the course of a month. If you drank two cups a day, that’s only around $16—instead of $160! Now that is some serious savings! So give up that daily Starbucks run, and start searching through weekly store ads instead. You could spend even less than $16 per month to enjoy delicious coffee just the way you like it, and if you are like many Americans who love their coffee, you could save $100 or more!

The Intention of Business

The other day I got an interesting e-mail from a former Starbucks middle manager. He said that he had read my book and brought it up at a lunch with two of the early driving forces behind the company’s growth. Specifically, he mentioned a section of the book where I talk about how Starbucks, especially in its opening phases of massive growth attracted a heterogeneous, largely up-scale crowd. When one of those early operators heard this, he scoffed:”I wish we’d been that smart.”

My contact, the former Starbucks middle manager, also brought up the recent New Yorker profile of Whole Food chairman John Mackey. In this essay, Nick Paumgarten paints Mackey as a mercurial and impulsive business leader, driven by his quirks and foibles as much as calculated acts of risk-taking and planning. The former middle manager suggested to me that the larger “net effect” of companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods was “significantly more dramatic and perhaps less intentional than it appears,” adding there was so much management by opportunity and aggressiveness — surprisingly little real strategy.”

This raises some fascinating questions about intentionality and agency in business decision making. Much of the stuff written about corporations, particularly critiques of corporations and corporate culture, presume a kind of cold rationality to the way business operates. It is a largely de-asethicized or personalized version of motives and intentions, where the only thing that matters is marketing reports – often based on sneaky ethnography – and spread sheets. Surely people like John Mackey and Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks, are driven to make money, but they are also informed by their own creativity.

Still that doesn’t mean that they aren’t functioning within larger institutions and structures of knowledge (and knowledge production) that don’t shape their decisions and thinking.

Let’s go back to the idea of intentionality and the comment, “I wish we had been that smart!!” Well, maybe no one at Starbucks in the early to mid-1990s said explicitly, let’s put our stores where we will attract a homogenous crowd, but the way they went about their business, priced their products, and gathered knowledge made sure the homogenous crowd was, in fact, the outcome.

First Starbucks priced its coffee far ahead of the competition. Coffee never cost more than a dollar in the 1990s, but Starbucks priced its coffee at twice that figure. That meant that only people who had some money and wanted something better would go to the places. As I explain in my book, pricing acted as a filter keeping some people out and pulling others in (and thus narrowed the range of the crowd at Starbucks). Then, Starbucks, like Whole Food, quite wisely commissioned – or did so in house – its own market research. It located its stores at busy inter-sections and on the sides of the street where people walked on the way to work in the morning, but it also chose locations based not just on foot and car traffic but perhaps even more on average income levels of educations. Average income levels and home values these are social constructed numbers, the products of historic patterns of racism and class privilege that when combined tend to reproduce homogeneity. So led by this kind of knowledge gathering, Starbucks followed the money. The company intentionally did this because it made good business sense. They followed the data.

Of course, Starbucks’ decisions about where to put its stores speaks to the larger lie at the heart of the American Dream – for every Howard Schultz rising from public housing to the helm of one of the nation’s most dynamic corporations there are millions of poor kids who attend lousy, underfunded schools and end up in dead-end jobs and there are millions of upper-middle-class kids who favored by birth go to gleaming schools with sparkling science labs and rooms full of brand new computers. They go to college, move to up-scale neighborhoods because they have the best chances at getting the best job and that gives them a choice of any number of Starbucks to go to on their way to work.

Just to flesh this out a bit. Some of the first Starbucks stores were in Marin, California and in West Chester, New York, and not Prince George’s County, Maryland or Oakland. (And Marin and West Chester were largely homogenous places – certainly in class terms.) Today, just to flesh this out a bit more, there are more Starbucks stores in Marin County (21) than Bakersfield County (21) despite that fact that Bakersfield has three times the number of people. (About 250,000 vs. 820,000, but the average per household income in Marin is about three times that of Bakersfield.)

What I’m suggesting is that there just aren’t that many accidents in economic life – kind of like the suburbs – they didn’t just happen to develop the way they did. The logic of American consumer life produces largely predictable outcomes. High priced items start out in high-end neighborhoods. Once the upper-middle class adopts a product, it often becomes a status symbol. Once it does, those a few rung below start to consume the product, so that they look like they have some money. And then, the upper-middle class moves on to something new – another way to show off their wealth and status. That cycle – that cycle that Veblen pointed out over a hundred years ago — fueled Starbucks growth and undergirded the business moves of the company whether clearly articulated that or not.

Methland: Death and Life of an American Small Town

Nick Reding’s Methland may be my pick for the nonfiction book of the year.  It is, of course, a remarkably sad and disturbing tale of a small Iowa town caught in the throes of a full-on drug epidemic.  The characters are great.  The doctors, lawyers, and politicians are, in many ways, consumed by just as many doubts and uncertainties as the crank-heads.  And everyone bears the costs of this health crisis.  And of course, there is never enough help — social workers are overburdened, the emergency room is at breaking point, and the mayor’s office wants to build a call center.   It is all kind of a tragedy, because no matter they do, it isn’t enough.

But those are the outlines of the story you would probably expect from a book like this — a smart account written by a journalist immersed his subject and sensitive to his subjects.

Yet it is Reding’s ability to pullback and see the larger social forces behind the meth scourge that makes this book great, and so important.  He links the rise of Meth to broad economic changes — to the transformation of the rural industrial economy; in particular, to the disappearance of good, union jobs and the emergence and consolidation of agri-business.  Actually, he show how monopolies in the drug trade and in the drug companies — the legit ones — have helped to create a fertile ground for the larger drug business and made drug laws almost impossible to enforce.

So this is a big book about big economic and political forces.

And in the end, like a good Springsteen song, there is a little hard earned redemption and a few reasons to believe.

See this review from popmatters, http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/117976-methland-the-death-and-life-of-an-american-small-town-by-nick-reding/

The Rough Democracy of Buying

After watching the documentary, Food Inc. the other day, one scene stood out. It wasn’t any of the film’s most shocking, arresting, or appalling moments. It actually unfolded in a rather quiet setting. A Walmart dairy buyer stands just inside the fence of an organic farmer’s lush green fields. He is there to buy as much hormone free milk as he can gobble up. “We won’t be here,” he admits, “if it wasn’t for customer preferences.”

The Walmart buyer’s statement says a lot about how the post-need consumer economy works. Even the largest retailer and supermarket chain in the world has to bend to “customer preferences.” This points to an essential aspect of the nature of transactions. Despite all the Mad Men and Madison Avenue manipulation, consumption, especially of relatively cheap, faddish items like food and fashion, represents what might think of as a rough democracy.

Walmart and other companies need to give us — consumers — what we want, or we will go elsewhere. The rough democracy of desire means, then, that we vote with our money and credit cards at the point of purchase. What’s popular sells, what isn’t doesn’t. (Remember the New Coke.) It also means that we can use our buying muscle to shape purchasing policies at the top, what or how the companies we patronize operate in the global marketplace.

While I was doing the research for my book, Everything But the Coffee, I traveled around the world going to Starbucks. The results were, in some ways, rather disappointing. For the most part, a Starbucks in Singapore looks, runs, and tastes exactly like a Starbucks in Seattle. Except for one thing. Starbucks devotes different amounts of signage and beverage and shelf space to fair trade coffee in different parts of the world.

In China and Japan, Starbucks stores said nothing about fair trade, no signs, no brochures, no messages on the back of cups. When I asked a Starbucks in official in Japan — an American who didn’t speak Japanese — why there weren’t any fair trade drinks or signs with fair trade coffee farmers on them in Tokyo, she paused for a moment and said, “on one asked.”

No one asked. Well British customers must have asked. On a visit to a Starbucks in Norwich, England in 2009, there were signs everywhere about fair trade. Grizzled, happy, handsome hard-working farmers — imagine Latino versions of the Marlboro Man — looked down from the posters on the walls and bathrooms, reassuring customers concerned about where their beans came from that their purchases improved the daily lives of growers in Central America and beyond. Sixteen months later, I went to that store again and found out that Starbucks in the United Kingdom had dramatically changed its policy. “Every Latte, Every Cappuccino,” the cups promised, was “100% Fairtrade coffee.”

In the US, the status of fair trade is somewhere in the middle between Japan and the United Kingdom. Less than 10 percent of the beans Starbucks uses here where the companies operates more than 10,000 stores come from fair trade farms, though at least a quarter of the company’s signage seems to talk about Starbucks’ modest fair trade purchases. On college campuses, where fair trade support is ostensibly the highest, the company regularly features Cafe Estimo (estimo means esteem in Spanish) — its fair trade blend — as its coffee of the day.

Thinking back to the comment from the Walmart buyer featured in Food, Inc., the differences in fair trade at Starbucks can be read as a poll, as a barometer really, for support for global awareness and fair trade consciousness in different countries around the world. These disparities also tell us something about the rough democracy of buying. Companies will, as the Walmart man tells us, shape their products to meet consumer desires. Consumers, then, need to be more aware of their power. If they raise their voices, or withdrawal their purchases, firms will respond. That’s what happened with Starbucks. Japanese customers haven’t asked for fair trade coffee, so they don’t have a choice. But in the UK, the customers wanted it and got it.

The realm of consumption may just be a new — or renewed — front for justice. Perhaps it is here — even more than the political realm where Senate seats are going in this election cycle for between $10-$141 million — that consumers can have the greatest efficacy and be heard the clearest.

But this remains only a rough form of democracy. Corporations aren’t the most publicly minded or trustworthy of allies. Like crafty centralist politicians, they want to co-op and de-politicize issues. They are interested in more votes — in more customers — not justice, or even fair trade. But they can be moved.

By Bryant Simon.

Coffee Wars and Class Warfare

Since the fall, Dunkin’ Donuts has been running a new ad campaign and it is about Starbucks, but really it is about class and ideas about class in contemporary America.

I just saw an advertisement during the Jets-Colts game for Dunkin’ Donuts, announcing that Dunkin’ beat Starbucks in a blind taste test. But the ad also makes clear this is about more than coffee, it is about class or really perception and pretention. In the ad, we are told that a majority of HARDWORKING Americans prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks.

Hardworking Americans. The idea links Dunkin’ Donuts to ordinary Americans and to a common sense style of purchasing and of utility. Starbucks in this binary is linked to the rich and frivolous. The ads further suggest that Dunkin’ Donuts is about coffee, while Starbucks is about “couches and music” – really it is about people more interested in the frills of the brand than the actual qualities of the product.

“Our consumer profile is very strong,” Frances Allen, a Dunkin’s brand marketing officer – that’s quite a job title – told a reporter, “It is hardworking Americans who are busy people. They don’t have time to hang around. They want to get in the store, they want the product served fresh, they want it affordable, and they want it fast.”
Now what does that make Starbucks customers, not hardworking Americans or people lots to waste on an inferior product?

This isn’t the first time that coffee marketing in the Starbucks era wasn’t about coffee, but about ideas of class.
Last year, McDonalds launched a web-site to go with its new reasonably priced “premium” coffee called, unsnobby.com.

Before Starbucks grew to what it is now, people didn’t fuss over their coffee or read too much into it. There was no social stigma attached to fetching a cup of joe from a pot on the hot plate at the Mobil station or drinking instant at home or Folgers out at a restaurant. Coffee was fuel. It was a hot, caffeine-loaded, culturally sanctioned psychoactive drug. But nowadays, what you drink and where you drink it communicates something fundamental about who you are. Albany New York business writer Marlene Kennedy sensed the change. “When my daughter was younger,” she wrote in 2006, “we had no Starbucks in town, so I couldn’t gauge whether she’d grow up with blue-collar, drip coffee tastes or trendy, espresso-based ones.”

In 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that Dunkin’ Donuts paid a dozen loyal customers one hundred dollars each to go to Starbucks everyday for a week. At the same time, they paid twelve Starbucks customers to try Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. What happened surprised Justin Holloway, the advertising executive who designed the experiment. No one switched teams, or “tribes” as Holloway dubbed them. But these allegiances did not revolve around coffee. They turned on status and class, and to a less extent, gender identities.

Holloway reported that Starbucks customers didn’t like Dunkin’ Donuts’ standardized decor or drinks. It felt too much like McDonalds to them and sliced into their sense of individual difference. They bristled, for instance, when employees – not baristas — poured pre-determined amounts of milk and sugar into their drinks. “The Starbucks people,” Holloway sneered, “couldn’t bear that they weren’t special anymore.” One of Holloway’s associates concluded that Starbucks patrons “seek out things that make them feel important.” They could get coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (and McDonalds), but they couldn’t get that sense of elevated status at these more utilitarian places, so they stayed away.

Dunkin’ Donuts devotes reacted just as strongly. They felt out of place at Starbucks. They didn’t like being around all those serious-looking men and women banging away at their laptops. And why didn’t they have jobs or offices to go to anyway, they wondered? Why do you have to say grande when you wanted a medium? And how do you pronounce grande? But mostly they couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would pay four dollars for a cup of coffee. One customer told a researcher that hanging out at Starbucks made him feel like he was “celebrating Christmas with people you don’t know.”

Dunkin’ Donuts continued its ethnographic research in 2006. Like a lot of companies, they were trying to figure out how to compete with Starbucks. Despite its name, Dunkin’ Donuts is now in the coffee business. Coffee represents 63 percent of its total sales. In the coffee industry, lattes and frappuccino-like drinks deliver the biggest profit margins. Dunkin’ Dunuts, therefore, wanted a piece of this pie. But at the same time, company officials learned from their research that if they associated their brand too closely with the symbols of yuppiedom and the culture of trading up they would push away their core audience. At one point, Dunkin’ Donuts officials toyed with the idea of putting couches in stores. But they junked the idea not long after one faithful customer told them, “if he wanted to sit on a couch, he’d stay home.” When the company test marketed a sandwich on crusty, seasoned bread with peppered meat and melted cheese in between, they called it “panini.” Customers recoiled, saying the name was “too fancy.” In response, Dunkin’ Donuts executives renamed the hot sandwich “stuffed melt,” and it sold well. At the end of the day, Dunkin’ Donuts marketers found out that its customers embraced the brands’ straightforward, blue-collar, man on the street identity, so that’s what they sold. “America runs on Dunkin,” proclaimed one slogan. In a more direct shot at Starbucks, a Dunkin’ Donuts advertisement decreed that it would bring an end to “the tyranny of long waits, high prices, and confusing sizes.”

“Why no wi-fi?” I asked Dunkin’ Donuts vice president of marketing John Gilbert, in in 2006 in his office at the company’s corporate orange-trimmed headquarters outside of Boston. I called him after I read a newspaper article that quoted him as saying with Starbucks clearly in mind, “We’re not about music and WiFi and couches and fireplaces.” Dunkin Dounts customers, he told me, are more self-confident than Starbucks patrons. But still, imagine, he said, a construction worker who comes everyday to get drinks for eight of his co-workers. “What happens,” he continued, “when he pulls up and there is no place in the parking lot to park his truck and then he walks into the store he sees the place filled with all these people he doesn’t recognize on their laptops.”
“What’s wrong with people on laptops?” I asked, perhaps a little self-conscious.
“Dunkin’ customers,” Gilbert answered, “see Starbucks people as people with nothing else to do.” In other words, these aren’t honest, hardworking people. They are posers.

In an interesting twist, Dunkin’ Donuts has started to put off its own aspirational glow. Some urban professionals with high incomes gravitate to the brand and its working-class coffee to demonstrate that they aren’t “coffee snobs.” (A whole bunch of others, however, are heading to independent, uber coffee shops run by self-described coffee geeks and connoisseurs.) By going to Dunkin’ Donuts they try to show that despite their decent sized paychecks they identify with the New England company’s “blue collar bona fides” and “working-class ethnos.” Other go to show that they won’t – or can’t – be sucked in by Starbucks’ class making appeals. My neighbor told me one day, for instance, that he goes Dunkin’ Donuts just to be “contrary.”

Lily Geismer grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a part of the country where she explained to me, “Dunkin’ Donuts verges on an obsession surpassed only maybe by the Red Sox. Over coffee a few years ago at the Espresso Royale across from the main part of the University of Michigan campus and down the street from the Starbucks, she told me about her fascination with “D and D.” Boston, she reminded me, remains an “intensely class and racially stratified city.” Except at Dunkin’ Donuts, said Lily. She saw these shops as one of the city’s “few democratic spaces.” To illustrate her point, she told me about her father, a man she tenderly described as an “overeducated lawyer from Cambridge who is a snob about so many other and it is true (as I have now confirmed.)” But he prefers Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks “because he doesn’t want a fancy drink” or a “milkshake.” He just wants “a cup of coffee,” not burnt and not over-caffeinated. Yet as Lily explained, this was about more than coffee. More importantly, this was a way for her dad to demonstrate his politics, a commitment to populism and broad-based equality.

Denny Marie Post wasn’t surprised by what the Dunkin’ Donuts researchers learned or what Lily Geismer told me. For the last thirty years, she has worked in the fast food business. These days she’s with T-Mobile, following a short sting as the senior vice president of global food and beverage for Starbucks, but before that and when I talked with her, she worked for Burger King and held the position of “chief concept director.”

Denny recalled for me over the phone an “uh-ha” coffee moment. Between flights at O’Hare or Hartsfield – one of those big airports — she waited in line at a Starbucks. In front of her stood two soldiers, both in uniform. They stared up at the menu board. They couldn’t figure it out. What did the drink names mean? What was with the sizes? Where was the coffee? “They are terrified,” Denny told me, adding, “the person behind the counter wasn’t very helpful.” Even though she is a tea drinker, she decided to step in.

“Just order a venti coffee,” she advised them. They did and wandered away with their drinks. Denny, however, couldn’t get that moment out of her head. She kept thinking to herself, “They face life and death every day and they are scared. They don’t know how to order. There’s something wrong.”

Over the next few months, she put her staff at Burger King to work on “Big Joe” coffee – a coffee according to advertisements that come in three sizes, small, medium, and large,” and two varieties, regular and turbo. The only difference between the two kinds is that turbo contains more caffeine. With this coffee, Burger King doesn’t tell a story about where the beans come from or the combination of flavors – hints of citrus with a touch of chocolate — in the blend or how its products help to make the world a better place. Taking a jab at Starbucks, the sign for Big Joe says, “If you want expensive coffee buy two.” Not long after Big Joe’s launch, Denny told a reporter that the new product was the “anti-Starbucks.”

Burger King customers, Denny said, loved the new coffee. But again, it wasn’t really about coffee. People who eat Whoppers and BK Broilers, Denny observed, “don’t read the New York Times,” and they don’t want their coffee “complicated, like a chai half de-caf whatever.” What they want, her focus groups, market research, and instincts told her, was “straight-forward” Joe, rather than “frou-frou” coffee.

That “fro, fro” line was a good one, I said to Denny when we talked, but what exactly did you mean, I asked? “The whole ambience” of Starbucks, she answered, “is continental, chic and skews feminine.” She continued, “The need to know (or pretend to know) how to pronounce words derived from Italian or French – the feigned expert customization regarding levels of foam, types of milk – all of it adds up to making a public and rather superficial statement about oneself.” To her, Fro fro, is “unnecessarily accessorized.” “The whole experience,” Denny concludes, “is a bit more than it really need be but that’s what makes it special for the Starbucks devotee.”

Once again, the negatives – the Dunkin Donut ad men and the anti-Starbucks people — got it right. Starbucks is not simply a coffee thing or even an efficient caffeine delivery system. It became a form of expression – a way that people tell others about themselves and about how they want to be perceived. And others – that is the power of Starbucks – understand the distinctions and coded meanings about class and status, although they might not embrace them or make them their own.

By Bryant Simon.

The Art of Public Space

A few months ago, Benjamin Barber, the author of Jihad vs. McWorld and Consumed, wrote a great piece in The Nation responding to the announcement that New York City would close off vehicular traffic around a few blocks of Times Square.

Titled “The Art of Public Space,” Barber rightly insists in this essay that public space is not natural, but has to be “made.” (And it can be made from the top down or the bottom up, but always with the public, not profits, in mind.) “There is,” he writes about top down kinds of places, “an ‘art of public space,’ which requires more than no-car signs, traffic cones, concrete barriers, tables and chairs. Happily, New York possesses an urban resource ideally suited to creating public space: artists.”

Thinking of the Ramblas in Barcelona and Millennium Park in Chicago, Barber wants to turn those New York pedestrian blocks into artistic spaces – places where artists are commissioned to do work that will generate public discussion or raise awareness of civic issues.

In the end, Barber understands that public space must produce conversations. This is key. Again, these gathering spots need to be places not just for escape and respite, but places of engagement and discussion. Such places, though, need triggers – something to start the talk. Art has always fit this role. We need this sort of public investment in places and in art now more than ever. As the health care debate has painfully revealed, as if we didn’t already know this, what our democracy suffers from the most is not the corrupting influence of money but from the diminished capacity for meaningful discussion.

By Bryant Simon.

Brand Avoidance

Last week, Roy Street Coffee and Tea, located at the corners of Roy Street and Broadway in Seattle, opened. This is another one of those stealth Starbucks – Starbucks stores without the Starbucks name over the front door – the coffee giant has been opening in its hometown and in London as of late. Like the other shops of this new vintage, this one is appointed with antiquey furniture, retro lighting, and a distressed looking table top salvaged from an old ship.
The rough-hewed interiors of these not Starbucks Starbucks haven’t really mattered to the journalists and bloggers who have been writing about them. They talk only about the naming patterns in Starbucks’ most recent branding strategy.

To them, the names of the stores represent a brand crisis. Quite rightly, they point out, when a brand hides its own identity, it is in some ways admitting defeat, saying that its name – a central part of any brand – has lost value. When it comes to Starbucks, all of this is true, but the question is why? Why has the Starbucks brand lost so much value that it has to hide from customers and act like a small business? The answer to these questions rests with communities and consumers, what they care about and desire the most these days.
Over the last several years, a quiet but decided shift in buying patterns has taken place. Really, there is something of a velvet revolt or a quiet rejection of brands going on.

In the early years of this century, the then mayor of Baltimore Martin O’Malley begged Starbucks to come to his city. He thought these big name stores would lend his de-industrializing hometown a much needed upper-middle-class sheen. Same with the residents of Landsdowne, Pennsylvania. In 2004, the town had several mom and pops diners and coffee shops. One day, though, a team of local residents lined up in three rows of forty an empty lot where a 7-11 used to be, h. When the photographer gave them the sign, they turned over the letters. They didn’t spell out “Go Team!” Instead, they wrote, “Got Location! Need Starbucks!” Afterwards, the Greater Lansdowne Civic Association sent this “visual petition” to Starbucks headquarters. Landsdowne never got a Starbucks, but Benicia, California and a lot of other towns got plenty of Starbucks.

By 2007, Benicia didn’t want them anymore. When Starbucks tried to open a fifth store in the northern California coastal town some residents balked. “It’s a serious problem,” complained a former city council person and owner of an independent coffee house. “People need to wake up to it,” she proclaimed, “When you drive through a town and everything is so homogenized that you can’t tell where you are anymore, that’s a problem.” She had an idea. Limit the number of chains. Ban them even. Encourage, instead, small, one-of-a-kind businesses. Soon her idea gained the support of local officials looking for ways to curtail the opening of more chain stores without violating state and federal laws. When the city council started to debate a ban on all “formula” businesses, the city manager told a reporter, “it’s about protecting the unique character of the commercial areas of Benicia, and there’s nothing unique about a store that has the same look and style, not just here, but everywhere.”

This wasn’t just about Starbucks. This was about a growing resistance to brands, and their dominance over the landscape, symbolized by Starbucks. That’s what the Benicia residents were saying. They were nervous about how brands cut into the value of their local place. So they revolted.

With their feet and their purchases, individual consumers are revolting as well. Scholars have started to call this trend, “brand avoidance,” as consumers worried about the larger social and economic impact of brands on society look for other options, even if those options cost a bit more. In growing numbers, buyers are choosing the local over the brand, the farmers market over the supermarket, the Main Street strip over the mall. Same with coffee. While Starbucks closed down outlets in 2008, citing the New Recession as the cause, independent coffeehouses, The Seattle Times noted, brought in new customers and they didn’t cut prices. Over the last few years, in fact, the number of independent coffeehouses in the US has jumped past the number of chain store outlets, and now represents 54% of the higher-end coffee market.

How can we explain these consumer choices and the growth of these smaller business sectors? Consumers, just like the towns they live in, are starting to think that going to the branded store – to Starbucks or Cosi or Chipotle – costs too much. It makes them look too ordinary and too much like everyone else.

This is what those not Starbucks Starbucks stores tacitly acknowledge. By hiding their logos, they speak to the growing appeal of the locally owned small businesses. (Remember the stealth Starbucks stores are individually designed and named after the streets they are on – the places themselves.)

Apparently the experiment isn’t working. A former Starbucks insider told me that 15th Ave. Coffee and Tea – the first of the new not Starbucks stores (its website, by the way, is called http://www.streetlevelcoffee.com) – is doing only a third of the business of the regular green-logoed Starbucks store that used be at that site. Perhaps consumers really do want something more than branded artifice; they want something genuinely local. The revolt against sameness may actually be real, too real for a fake Starbucks. And certainly this growing rejection of brands presents an opportunity for small business owners to create something authentically local for their customers.

By Bryant Simon.

Lost Connections

Over the last few months, the New York Times has been running a series of articles on the New Hard Times. Many of these pieces investigate the costs of the currents economic crisis – costs in terms of homes lost, savings drained, and relationships strained. A smart and perceptive recent article in USA TODAY, “How Joblessness Hurts Us,” by Thomas H. Sander and Robert Putnam points to another set of costs of the New Hard Times – costs in terms of community connections and increased isolation.

“Misery,” Sander and Putnam write, “it turns out, doesn’t love company. Distressing new research shows that unemployment fosters social isolation not just for the unemployed but also for their still-employed neighbors. Moreover, the negative consequences last much longer than the unemployment itself. Policymakers have focused on short-term help for the jobless, but they must address these longer-term community effects, too.” This was true during the last Great Depression of the 1930s.

Researches back then discovered that people without jobs socialized less, attended fewer PTA meetings, and stopped going to church pot-lucks. The same drop in these kinds of daily activities that fostered community life seem to taking place now. The growing ranks of the unemployed tend to stay at home, avoid volunteering, and eschew social activities. To put it bluntly, the unemployed spend most of their increased free time alone. What’s more, as Sander and Putnam argue, the loss of social connections is difficult to recover, even after the unemployed find work. Prolonged periods of joblessness translate into permanent social isolation. The answer – an aggressive job creation campaign.

Not surprisingly, the comments on the USA TODAY webpage rail against this op-ed piece as predictable liberal whining, but this is not just about government spending as these critics charge, this is about the vital work of sustaining community.

By Bryant Simon.