Saturday, July 24, 2010

Global brands, local tastes By: Bryant Simon

Shakespeare’s birthplace is not immune from a common complaint. When Jim Hyssop saw a Starbucks open up several years ago in downtown Stratford-upon-Avon, near the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut already there, he grimly forecast: “If someone blindfolded you, put you in a helicopter and set you down in a town somewhere in England, you wouldn’t be able to tell where you are anymore.”

Like many scholars and residents of places with a past, Hyssop fears that global brands will erode national, regional and neighbourhood distinctiveness. As chains deliver the same products, designs and exteriors everywhere, they could, Hyssop worries, create a soulless Generica, “a land where all the high streets look identical.”

Although McDonald’s serves 47 million customers each day in 119 countries and Starbucks serves about the same number each week in 51 countries, that one-world Generica has not taken control. Instead, the spread of these branded symbols of globalisation raises the value of the local. Everywhere multinationals go, they generate a grassroots pushback, an assertion of the enduring value of particular places, tastes and traditions. Yet this nearly universal assertion of the local is much less widely noted than the fears of the global.

Opened in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks initially seemed more local than global. In its early years, it sold whole bean, freshly roasted coffee out of one store with the owners often standing behind the counter. Even after the company opened a second, then a third store, it retained a mom-and-pop kind of feel.

As much as those first Starbucks looked and acted local, they were enmeshed in the global. The original logo with a bare-breasted siren imitated a Norse old-world Norse woodcut. And the beans came from far-off places like Guatemala, Sumatra and Ethiopia. Indeed, this remaking of coffee from everyday commodity into an imported, slightly exotic affordable luxury gave Starbucks products their cultural value. When Howard Schultz took over Starbucks in 1987, he thickened its global networks – opening the company’s first international outlet in Vancouver in 1987, then in Tokyo in 1996, Qatar in 2000, Paris in 2004 and Buenos Aires in 2008. By 2009, Starbucks had 16,120 stores on five continents.

As he tells it, Schultz experienced a coffee epiphany in a Milan espresso bar in 1983. Hearing the melodious clanking of saucers and hiss of steaming milk, he decided Americans would pay a premium for a facsimile of the Italian coffee bar.

Schultz did more than just introduce Americans to espressos and cappuccinos. Seeking to enhance brand value by associating it with Europe – the center of coffee culture and knowledge in the minds of most Americans – he and his colleagues sold grande and venti mistos and macchiatos prepared by baristas.

Continental references were just one part of Starbucks’s global posture. The company strived to create a transnational setting, distinct from any one locale or nation that was nonetheless still everywhere, everywhere globetrotters, creative types and the upper-middle-class convened. Whereas McDonald’s sells an idealised, consumer version of America as a fun, efficient place, Starbucks sold itself as a predictable destination on an increasingly flat global landscape.

Starbucks is the same everywhere, everywhere erasing differences and suggesting that we – those who can afford pricey drinks – are well-informed, sophisticated customers who appreciate quality, yet still care about the environment and the least fortunate. Thus, it became the brand for a new global middle class of the 21st century.

Despite Starbucks’ message of high-end universalism, its global expansion did not go uncontested. When the World Trade Organisation met in Seattle in 1999, protestors vandalized a Starbucks, accusing the company and other multinationals of polluting the environment and exploiting cheap labour in the developing world.

In 2003, Singapore’s Chua Chin Hon wrote, “I’m no anti-globalisation protestor,” but admitted a change of heart, triggered by a Starbucks opening in Beijing’s Forbidden City. He wrote about understanding “the rage against the global capitalist machinery’s relentless and oft-times, senseless drive to sell a few more cups of coffee, burgers, or T-shirts.”

Four years later, Rui Chenggang, an anchor for Chinese Central Television, demanded that Starbucks leave the nearly 600 hundred-year-old former royal residence. Accusing the company of tainting “China’s national culture,” he organised a boycott. Eventually Starbucks vacated the location, and a Chinese company took its place – selling lattes and cappuccinos in white cups with green logos.

Starbucks takeover of street corners in Hong Kong triggered a kind of consumer dissent. One-of-a-kind, owner-operated coffeehouses – tiny and unadvertised – sprang up in second- or third-floor apartment living rooms all over the city. “When it comes to cafe culture,” wrote a Financial Times reporter, “above ground is the new underground.”

While Starbucks has struggled during the New Recession, closing 600 stores in the US and halting expansion abroad, sales at independents, according to industry sources, remain robust.

In 2009, Starbucks responded to the shift towards the small by redesigning and retrofitting several Seattle stores and, later, several London stores. The new cafes didn’t carry the Starbucks name or familiar green logo. One was named 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, another Roy Street Tea and Coffee. In other words, the company opened stealth Starbucks meant to look and sound like independent coffee shops.

The message? The global had generated so much demand for the local that a global chain needed to look local to survive globally, at least in some markets.

This marks a change in the appeal of the big versus the small. What’s constant in the age of globalisation is that the local and global co-exist, always in conversation and tension with each other. You can’t have one without the other.

Bryant Simon is the director of the American Studies programme at Temple University. This paper was written for Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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