Starbucks and the Third Alternative.

When we think of Starbucks, we think of “coffee house.” And of course, that description fits the bill. Yet, the rise of Starbucks to its current global status makes it a corporation. From its simple beginnings as a single store on Pike Place Market in Seattle, Starbucks rose to level of corporation with coffee houses in over 55 countries. As a corporation, it prides itself on perfection, through both customer service and providing whole bean coffees bought from top of the line producers.1 As well as different blends of coffee, some customers say it feels like dining in a European cafe and that they feel attracted by the exclusive imagery that the brand portrays.

Visual imagery plays a key role in how we perceive brands and how they affect us. So how does Starbucks generate a visual image in the mind of its customer? Its mission statement from its inception at the outset and right up until the present day remains the same: to “inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.”2

We can see from this simple objective that as a company Starbucks wanted to revolutionize the entire surface area of its potential reach but we notice that the advancement of their product via increased exposure placed as its priority the individual. From this mission statement we can see that it takes the values of the individual and marries them to collective ideals and attempts to capture these sentiments by appealing to the human spirit, through nurture and inspiration.

As consumers, we only pledge to consent to a brand if its values align with our idea of what we would think of as a good product. Starbucks cannot simply appeal to nurturing the human spirit through inspiration unless its consumer base feels inspired by the types of coffee that Starbucks produces.

We can ascribe the popularity of the Starbucks brand to its authentic and genuine practices: from the sommelier to the barista, Starbucks buys the best Arabica beans from Asia, Africa, or Latin America and “bring{s} out the balance and rich flavor of the beans through the signature Starbucks roast.”3 By having a signature style the brand appeals to the individual. Along with creating an exceptional cup of coffee, Stabucks took that appeal to the individual and created a sense of “togetherness” by making its coffee house into “a neighbourhood gathering place for meeting friends and family.” In doing this, Starbucks fulfilled its mission statement of reaching both the individual and the community.

Starbucks marries to its name as a registered trademark key elements such as iconography and a colour scheme.

The famous Starbucks logo, The Siren, came from a 16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid.

The famous Starbucks logo, The Siren, came from a 16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid.


The famous Starbucks logo, The Siren, came from a 16th century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid, “a seductive mystery mixed with a nautical theme,”4 that captures “the seafaring history of coffee and Seattle’s strong seaport roots.”5 The Siren represents the archetypal muse of inspiration that forms part of the Starbucks brand’s core message.

Starbucks’ use of the color green appeals to our coneptions of nature, which relates to coffee in the sense that it grows in the natural world. Green’s properties of restfulness, its soothing qualities, and its health-giving effects goes hand-in-hand with coffee’s revitalizing effects along with the relaxing effect of enjoying a cup in a cafe.6

Starbucks’ brand values go further beyond merely visual imagery: they create equality, sustainability, as well as ethical employability.

Now let’s consider things obversely. The status of the commodity accelerates in pace as brands grow in popularity.

AMI Press reports that Howard Schultz, the venerable founder and chief brand architect of Starbucks, “fears that the company’s brand is being ‘commoditized.’”7 User-experience commentator Rebecca Horton says that Starbucks’ “{b}rand look and feel is synonymous across chains … making it feel uninspired and commercial,”8 which may well confirm some of Mister Schultz’s concerns. So we see the way in which a brand can market itself as authentic and genuine but how this perception changes if the brand homogenously saturates the market.

This notion of market saturation can lead to the consumer perception that Starbucks serves a ubiquitous “mass beverage” that takes away from the experience of what Howard Schultz called the “romance and theatre”9 of a visit to a Starbucks coffee house.

Rebecca Horton tells us how Starbucks communicates its brand identity. The Twitter communique of which Starbucks wrote, “We like to run wild sometimes,” not only conveys the business of their staff in serving you their customer but runs synonymous to the feeling associated with coffee and the hectic pace of contemporary working life. Starbucks’ ran a message that ran along the sides of a selection of their coffee mugs which read “It’s true, we love you!” Idiomatically, Starbucks invokes the collectivity. They use both “we” and “you” as plural pronouns to communicate that idea of neighbourhood participation that they so want to maintain as central to their core message.10

We can see that the way Starbucks communicates its brand and the way people perceive it can both differ or acquiesce. A brands reason for existence relies on this acquiesence.

Ecommerce completely changes the face of the way that brands, like Starbucks, can increase sales and achieve a return on investment through their advertising campaigns. The effects of networking and globalization means that “retailers are no longer required to compete with stores on the other side of the street but on the other side of the country.”11 The latest marketing initiative from Starbucks makes use of the digital platform to offer a reward scheme. It hopes to pull consumers closer to the Starbucks brand, whilst at the same time distancing itself from their competitors.

Over the Christmas period, Starbucks took its offers and targeted them to demographics according to geographic locations and also “experimented with personalised promotions.”12 As with the latest Coca-Cola campaign, Share A Coke, Starbucks contemporaneously followed suit by appealing to consumer identity. Its latest television advertising campaign wanted to stress that “Latte,” or “Espresso,” does not necesseraily apply to the average coffee consumer. Starbucks decided to manipulate the idea that current market conditions can make the experience of the consumer seem impersonal somehow. And guess what? Just like Coke, Starbucks comes up with the answer. Instead of usernames, reference numbers, or IP addresses, these identifiers of commerce, Starbucks develops the customer relationship by replacing these anonymous identifiers with the name of its customers. This idea of placing the consumer on a first name basis removes any ambiguity in the experience and increases the level of trust.13 The addendum to the TV ad, “We’re Starbucks, nice to meet you,” reinforces the notion of plurality and relationship.14

Starbucks now plans to exploit the ubiquitousness of mobile phone technology as one of the forefront innovators in m-commerce which sees the mobile device as a point-of-sale for the order and payment of beverages. To quote Howard Schultz once more, he said: “We are just beginning to appreciate the full magnitude and possibilities of the Starbucks mobile payment platform opportunity. Holiday 2013 was the first in which many traditional bricks and mortar retailers experienced in-store foot traffic give way to online shopping in a major way. Customers research, compare prices and then bought the brands and items they wanted online, frequently using a mobile device to do so.”15

Does this potentially innovative move come at the cost of making the brand’s perceived identity more impersonal, as user-experience commentator Rebecca Horton implies, or should it not matter, since as a corporation Starbucks want to legitimately increase profits? The m-commerce innovation certainly makes Starbucks yet more accessible, but in a world dominated by the digital medium how can we know whether such a move will not alienate some consumers? Starbucks strikes a mean balance between the in-store personalised experience and the omnipresent mass communication initiative with its links to reward. It certainly covers all bases, anyway.

The Third Alternative

Branding without advertising relies solely on word-of-mouth from customer experience. In a world where global corporations such as Starbucks turn the coffee into a commodity we can only find the third alternative independently. This takes the “local coffee shop brand” out of the context of advertising through mass communication. Independent coffee houses make use of all the same channels of social media that Starbucks do but instead of focusing on increasing profits transnationally they work locally, reinforcing their consumer base by relying on people who build up trust with their brand and return again and again to a product that they have a love affair with.

Local coffee houses like Manchester’s North Tea Power can affect more of a romanticism with those who go to taste their coffee, more so than chains like Starbucks, since they offer a unique brand experience. For example, along with its connoisseur-ratified coffee, North Tea Power appeals to a niche market through its clever name; it relies on the exclusivity of its name to build up its image as the only coffee house of its type. (We should note that Starbucks began the very same way: the only one of its kind, with a unique name, taking pride to produce consumer-approved coffee from the finest beans.)

NTP relies on word-of-mouth to assert its integrity and maintain its authenticity.

NTP relies on word-of-mouth to assert its integrity and maintain its authenticity.


Let’s see how North Tea Power manages to create this sense of romanticism and exclusivity by looking at the way its lovers endorse the place and product.

Tom Hiskey, aka Mr. Cosy, blogs about all kinds of different coffee. Hiskey writes that North Tea Power “leads the way” in helping to create an artisan coffee scene in Manchester.16 This suggests that, due to market saturation by the very likes of Starbucks, the artisan scene gains recognition for offering the alternative whilst at the same time could struggle to compete with the likes of a major brand. As we may well find a Starbucks on every second street corner in today’s metropolis, North Tea Power’s location adds to its brand values. “Located in the city’s cool Northern Quarter, North Tea Power is unexpectedly hidden away…”17 This air of secrecy adds to the North Tea Power brand’s charm, evoking the image of a quaint, hidden gem. By choosing what we know as a “cool location,” in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, it puts North Tea Power on a need-to-know basis with its clientele.

Without the requirement or need to conform to a “house style” that runs synonymously across a chain of stores North Tea Power can maximize its brand identity through its use of a distinctive hallmark style. Hiskey confirms this when he writes about the ambience inside the shop: “Inside there is a stylish mix of eclectic furniture, stripped wood, industrial light fittings, well-thumbed Penguin books and fresh flowers.”18

North Tea Power does great coffee, with up to three different blends, they help you discover your choice by explaining their brewing methods, and, for the coffee-snob, their brew bar consists of all the relevant coffee brewing paraphernalia. North Tea Power also uses beans from Has Bean to create a signature blend, the hallmark of any good independent coffee house.19 This expertise gives us the right impression that independent coffee culture goes hand-in-hand with this artisan approach, to create the best experience, and to foster this love affair that appeals to the taste of the afficionado. The afficionado drinks their cup of Joe!

Tom Hiskey blogs for who, in their article entitled Top 10 Coffee Shops in the UK, 2014, list North Tea Power as the 7th best coffee shop in the UK.20 As well as word-of-mouth, local consumer fidelity, and great artisan coffee, independent coffee shops can get picked up by the likes of national news media. Daily broadsheet, The Independent, lists North Tea Power as 1 in 50 of the best national coffee houses. The Independent newspaper enlisted the help of Dale Harris, wholesale director at Has Bean coffee suppliers, who said: “This is a beautiful café in the northern quarter of the city. The staff are warm, the espresso is exceptional and you’ll never want to leave.”21

So, we come to conclude from our perceptions of two successful coffee brands, one working independently and the other corporately, that coffee remains a commodity contemporaneously. Yet, the artisan approach remains the true spirit of a great coffee experience and unfortunately for Starbucks, the maximization of sales comes along with the intensification of the brand image. By employing a softer brand, North Tea Power keep a certain integrity, but this doesn’t necesseraily negate Starbucks’ authenticity. Reward systems and marketing approaches can work to strengthen a brand and maximize sales as long as they don’t cheapen the experience.

1Tsirelman, Oxana. “Starbucks: the Rise of a Global Coffee Chain.” Web. Accessed: 29 January 2014.



4Murray, Steve. “So, Who is the Siren?” 05 January 2011. Web. Accessed: 29 January 2014.


6Cherry, Kendra. “Color Psychology – Green.” Web. Accessed: 29 January 2014.

7Anon. “What Starbucks Taught Us About Branding.” Web. Accessed: 29 January 2014. http://www./news/articles/what-starbucks-taught-us-about-branding/

8Horton, Rebecca. “Brand Identity Analysis: Starbucks and NYT.” 27 November 2012. Web. Accessed: 29 January 2014.

9Anon. (2014)

10Horton (2012).

11Joseph, Sebastian. “Starbucks digital offering set for caffeine shot to stir global sales.” 2014 January 2014. Web. Accessed: 29 January 2014.


13Voyager25823. “Starbucks new TV advert, UK.” 10 March 2012. Web. Accessed: 30 January 2014.


15Joseph (2014).

16Hiskey, Tom. “North Tea Power, Manchester.” 06 August 2013. Web. Accessed: 31 January 2014.




20Hiskey, Tom. “Top 10 Coffee Shops in the UK, 2014.” 01 January 2014. Web. Accessed: 31 January 2014.

21Watson-Smyth, Kate. “The 50 Best coffee shops.” 04 January 2013. Web. Accessed: 31 January 2014.



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