Hightower: Starbucks' Bizarre Branding Strategy -- Hide Its Name, Pretend to Be 'Authentic' Local Coffee Shop

There's a joke going around that Starbucks has so saturated the coffee market that it is now opening new Starbucks stores inside its old stores.

Well, not quite -- not yet -- but the corporate coffee colossus is presently trying to expand through an equally bizarre marketing strategy: By disowning its globally ubiquitous brand name.

With Starbucks' sales declining as more and more caffeine consumers reject the cookie-cutter corporate climate that the chain epitomizes, it is launching a new line of stores that disappears its name. There's no corporate signage on the new buildings, no logo stamped on every product inside and none of the generically bland ambience that makes one Starbucks just like the other 16,000 in the chain.

Instead, the new shops strive to be the anti-Starbucks, dressing up as funky neighborhood coffeehouses with a cool, local vibe. A sort of rustic, thrift-shop decor screens the corporate presence, and such additions as live music and poetry readings are meant to lend an aura of down-home authenticity.

The first of these faux local outlets opened last month in Seattle under the nom de commerce of "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea," taken from the name of its neighborhood. Future stores are also expected to appropriate the names of their neighborhoods all across the country in a corporate effort to convey a sense of belonging. The idea, as explained by the chain's senior vice president of global design, is to give each of the coffeehouses "a community personality."

What we have here, of course, is a willful attempt to commit consumer fraud. But it's such a goofy fraud that it's doomed to be an embarrassing failure.

Start with the fact that genuine neighborhood coffee shops genuinely have a "community personality." It's not something that can be faked or "given," much less replicated into a chain of 16,000 outlets. Indeed, one of the things you'll notice about a real community place is that its organizational chart rarely includes a "senior vice president of global design."

Corporate chains can't do "community," can't do "funky," can't do "cool," can't do "independent" -- because they're not. They're not any of those things.

In fact, Starbucks revealed just how inherently un-cool it is when it first began developing this absurdist chain of manufactured "authenticity." Since its entire corporate culture is rooted in the numbing homogeneity that one writer has dubbed "Generica," the company had no experience or expertise in authenticity. So, top executives surreptitiously deployed a gaggle of market researchers to snoop around a couple of popular local coffee houses in Seattle. Their mission: to find out what constitutes "community personality" -- and steal one.

Starbucks' snoops were not exactly subtle. Rather than entering the small shops inconspicuously, they would arrive as a group, crowding out real customers as they poked around and jotted notes in folders labeled, "Observation." Having gotten what they wanted, the whole gaggle would then depart, without even having had the courtesy of buying a single cup of coffee!

Starbucks is what it is. It can hide its name from us (at least for a while), but it can't hide its essence. The corporate nature will always out.

Instead of masquerading as a loveable independent, a more productive (and more honest) marketing strategy for Starbucks might have revealed itself at one of its branches near my home in Austin, Texas. This store sets side-by-side with that of another national chain, and the signs on the adjacent buildings make the two corporations appear to be functioning in symbiotic partnership: "Starbucks Coffee-Jiffy Lube."

I think there's a certain poetic integrity somewhere in that juxtaposition. Maybe the message is that either place will do a job on you.

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