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.

Jamie Oliver, Chicken Nuggets, and the Meaning of Sukkot

A few years ago, Jamie Oliver decided to make chicken nuggets for a group of middle schoolers. He thought that if they saw what went into their food, they would change their food choices. He was wrong.

As Oliver threw chicken parts, breast meat, feet, and skin (lots of skin) along with salt (loads of salt), unnamed filler, and pink-colored binders into a grinder, the kids scrunched up their faces. They murmured, “yuck and “oh in unison. They looked disgusted, nearly nauseous, at the commercial break.

Then Oliver came back and he fried up the nuggets into bite-sized bits of golden brown. He asked the students if they wanted to try one of them. Every single one of the kids threw up a hand and said, “Yes! Those nuggets, that only moments before had disgusted them, now were appetizing kid-fare.

Oliver’s experiment famously failedbut what does this have to do with Sukkot?

Well, it turns out a lot. Oliver’s experiment failed because those middle schoolers raised on hyper-industrial food, cooking in the microwave, and no more home economic classes at school couldn’t imagine, and didn’t imagine, a connection between what they ate, where it came from, and how it was manipulated into what sat on their plates. Those links had been erased over time.

Indeed, this is perhaps one of the more troubling things about our current food system and why this system is so intractable. It has turned so many of us into what Wendell Berry has called “industrial eaters,” people who do not know that eating is an “agricultural act. As a result, we no longer know about or imagine the connections between eating and the land, between food and processing. This disconnect explains why we eat passively and uncritically. Those kids in Oliver’s experiment don’t really expect food to have any relation to its preparation and where it came from in the first place.

Sukkot, however, is about making the connection between the land and the table explicit. It is, of course, a harvest festival, and a time to celebrate plenty. But as a harvest festival it also calls Jews back to their agricultural roots. It asks Jews to think about what they eat, where it came from, and how it got to the table. It asks us to think about chicken nuggets and what goes into this and other “frankenstein foods.

By Bryant Simon

Starbucks in Korea or the Sameness of Difference

Recently, I had the chance to visit a couple of Starbucks stores in Seoul, Korea. There is an interesting coffee scene going on right now in Seoul. Western-ish coffee stores are everywhere (more perhaps than in the US and UK) and all kinds of people are using them, as meeting spots and hanging out spots. But the coffee scene in Seoul is a bigger story for another post. Back to Starbucks.

Starbucks in Korea, unlike most countries, spells out the name of its stores in Korean not English.

But despite this difference in signage, I was reminded again and again in Korea of something I heard in Japan while giving a talk on my book, Everything But The Coffee. After I gave my presentation and explained that I had been to more than 400 Starbucks stores in 11 countries around the world, a hand went up. “Couldn’t you have found out what you discovered in a single Starbucks?” he asked. And the answer was, “yes, probably.” Starbucks stores are more similar than different, and this isn’t just about product control, about a grande latte in Salt Lake City tasting exactly the same as one in Seoul. (By the way, the Americanos I had in Korea at Starbucks were almost undrinkable.)

Just like in the UK and US, Starbucks in Korea sold the notion of “self gifting” — of giving yourself a treat.

And like in Spain, France, Malaysia, China, and the US, Starbucks in Korea sold the idea of community. It did this through the use of the bright community board. (Notice though most of the posts are actually about Starbucks.)

And finally, Starbucks in Korea, and in Indonesia and Japan, sells the idea of comfortable diversity. The idea is that difference is good because we are all essentially the same. And we all want the finer things in life, a cup of coffee on soft sofa. Check out this sign about learning Korean from Starbucks.

By Bryant Simon.