Why do so many people wait in line for a product that is above average in price yet average in quality? Stepping foot into a highly acclaimed Starbucks café immediately provides an answer. I become overwhelmed with the scent of coffee as soothing music pervaded my consciousness. The sudden desire to relax strikes me, and purchasing an overpriced cup of coffee is tempting, yet I refuse to conform to the lifestyle Starbucks advocates. Judging by the large line of customers, certainly regulars at the café, Starbucks is not begging for my support. Considering the fact that there are a total of 17,572 Starbucks stores in the world, 10,924 of them being in the United States, it goes without saying that Starbucks is an exceedingly successful chain (Starbucks). However, it seems that Starbucks caffeinated drinks are not the only draw for customers; the Starbucks lifestyle captivates them. The Starbucks way of life is typically seen on college campuses where many students come from middle class backgrounds. For instance, many students at the University of Delaware carry around a Starbucks cup. Starbucks manipulates factors such as social status, environmental aesthetics, the use of language, the treatment of the customers, the variety of products, and the psychological process of self-gifting to appeal to a mass amount of people who are enticed by the perceived glamour of being a “Starbucks Person.”
The placement of Starbucks cafés is a marketing technique that focuses on a specific group of people, or to people who wish to be a “Starbucks person.” This phenomenon explains the prevalence of Starbucks cafés in Barnes and Noble rather than Walmart. An author published in The New York Times, Susan Dominus, asserts, “The heart of that audience is a group the company refers to as its ‘core customers’ — educated, with an average age of 42 and an average income of $90,000.” The Starbucks aesthetic appeals to the middle to upper classes College campuses, where a sense of intellectuality thrives, also embrace this. Students carrying around a Starbucks cup are visible Starbucks customers meaning they have money, are smart, and look cool. Even the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, alongside co-author Dori Jones Yang, notice a trend among customers’ expectations and desires. In the book, Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz and Yang claim, “Many of our customers are sophisticated and discriminating, and they expect us to do everything with taste, not only our coffee preparation but also the esthetic design of our stores and packaging” (307). Schultz holds his customers in high regard and welcomes identities that are formed by someone purchasing a Starbucks beverage. Intern at Michigan State University, Casey McGrath, also touches on the similarities of the Starbucks clientele, as she asserts, “Some people are espresso people, others latte people, and it acts as a kind of subcategory to their overall Starbucks identity” (6).
By focusing on a more educated audience, Starbucks finagles the setting of the café to draw in college students that wish to spend their time in a subtly sophisticated environment. Douglas Goodman, Sociology professor at Dartmouth College, argues, “What spurred [Starbucks’] growth and created the mass-market, specialty coffee industry was the decision by Howard Schultz to open European-style coffee bars instead of just selling coffee beans to restaurants” (112). Starbucks is not just known for their coffee, but also for their commonly seen cafés scattered around the nation. Careful planning was required to create a “third place,” as Schultz describes it (120). A third place, a concept introduced by scholar Ray Oldenburg (qtd. in Schultz and Yang 120; Thompson and Arsel 639) is a location where like-minded people can come together and discuss issues that they have in common. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research concluded that Starbucks set cultural expectations that model that a coffee shop should be a third place (Thompson and Arsel 639). This third place allures Starbucks people exclusively. Many college students wish to claim the roles of activists and intellectuals, who often meet up at a local Starbucks to discuss matters that hold great importance to them. Journalist Liz Stinson claims, “Starbucks execs wanted to transition from the singular brand they’d been working to establish worldwide, to focusing on more locally relevant design for each store.” Although Starbucks is attempting to correlate with local themes, there is still a lingering familiarity within all of the Starbucks chains. College students search for a sense of familiarity when entering college for the first time and they find a nearby Starbucks to be a place close to home in their hearts, as well as a place to meet similar-minded people. The social experience Starbucks promises has even helped it through the recession. In “Starbucks and the Resurrection of the Middle Class,” Douglas McIntyre reveals, “It is psychologically and emotionally comforting during distressing times to be in the company of friends and neighbors. Starbucks has set up its stores so people will linger. Four dollars for a cup of coffee is expensive, but four dollars for comfort is not.” The dark green and brown color scheme, the soothing indie music playing in the background, and the bitter smell of coffee present in every café is comforting to a Starbucks person, enticing college students to purchase a caffeinated or sugary beverage while they glance over the material in their textbook. Howard Schultz conducted research to analyze consumer needs and states, “The research helped us realize that customers have different need states. And we have an opportunity to try to meet them in different ways in different stores. During the day, a college student may want to study with a cup of coffee.” And, they continue, “During the evening, the same student may prefer a place to meet with friends, free of the heavy influence of alcohol, that offers great music but also a chance to talk” (Schultz and Yang 264). Schultz and Yang use a college student as an example when focusing on marketing strategies towards customers, which confirms my view of college students being utilized as pawns in Starbucks’s renowned success.
Furthermore, within each café, Starbucks establishes a sense of community within a large consumer base by adopting extrinsic language. The coffee chain breaks away from consumer norms by changing the widely known sizes of small, medium and large to tall, grande and venti. Carlene Elliott, published in the Consumption, Market & Culture Journal argues:
Geographic recombination also occurs within Starbucks' menu and in its store, where language, country and commodity all provide symbolic grist for the Starbucks mill. Customers do not purchase from servers, they order from baristas, and cup sizes do not come in small, medium or large, but in the equally Italian short, grande and venti. Popular espresso-based drinks such as cappuccino and cafe latte can be ordered con panna or as macchiatos. So while customers sip their grande cafe-au laits in a Seattle-based coffeehouse, they imbibe a style of coffee (espresso) invented in France, then perfected in Italy, but sourced from Latin America and Indonesia. (375)
Although the journal article was published in 2001, the information still remains relevant to the topic, as the language has remained static over the years. Furthermore, a sense of belonging embraces a regular Starbucks customer who orders a daily grande Caramel Macchiato. In that moment, he enters a different world, in which he and the barista speak a secret language that outsiders know nothing of. Someone who is more closed minded and stubborn would find a coffee shop like Starbucks to be daunting. This person would not understand what a macchiato (a beverage with steamed milk and one or two shots of espresso) or a Frappuccino is (McGrath 6). The communities of people who conform to the “Starbucks lifestyle” are comfortable with this language and enjoy feeling included in the Starbucks community. Constance M. Ruzich, an English Studies Professor at Robert Morris University, asserts, “Starbucks’ attempts to recreate the social experiences and communal rituals of Italian cafe´s and British pubs have been aided by company language designed to foster feelings of belonging and connection” (436). College freshmen yearn for a place that houses feelings of belonging and are more likely to fall victim to an expensive Starbucks habit because living on a college campus for the first time can be a scary experience. Starbucks provides a sense of familiarity and safety, as freshmen wish to fit the mold of a “Starbucks Person,” someone who is intelligent, outspoken and wealthy (McGrath 7). The application of language at Starbucks also acts as a successful marketing strategy: “The company’s use of in-store language is as crafted and creative as its brewing of specialty drinks, and amounts to nothing less than a national advertising campaign played out on the local level every day in every store” (Ruzich 433). Although some fast food restaurants play off of the names of Starbucks’ drinks, such as Frappes at McDonalds, the original Frappuccino remains trademarked by Starbucks. One would also be hard-pressed to discover an establishment in the United States that incorporates the tall, grande, and venti sizes.
Starbucks has easily made their name by the unique treatment of their clientele as well. The Starbucks employee manual emphasizes the importance of presentation, encouraging employees to know the customers’ names, drink orders or personal preferences (Simon 73). The employees play a vital role in creating the environment that Starbucks’ regulars love, the feeling of community, relaxation, and comfort. This coffeehouse embraces the customer as an individual. Although Starbucks worries more about their profits than the experience of the individual, the two concepts are related. An increase in the customer’s satisfaction with their Starbucks experience results in an increase in profit. The employees are encouraged to create a personal connection with the customer. For example, a barista may wish a college student luck on their finals during the end of the semester, as the young customer orders a large Frappuccino to take an edge off of the stress. People are usually given a false sense of belonging, when in actuality the barista is mainly just doing his or her job.
In valuing client treatment, Starbucks has also gone a long way to prove that the café doesn’t just appeal to caffeine-addicted adults but additionally markets beverages that increasingly appeal to college students as well – expanding the client base while maintaining a similar set of core values among consumers. Frappuccinos were created as caffeine-free alternatives. These drinks appealed more to the younger generation, thus boosting the popularity of Starbucks. In Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, Bryant Simon claims, “With their icy textures and heavy infusions of fat and sugar, Frappuccinos go down easily. They gave non-coffee drinkers a chance to join the Starbucks thing. This approach worked particularly well with teens, who are often fervent brand loyalists and strong adherents to the ethos that buying equals identity” (50). By broadening the variety of beverages, Starbucks broadened the age group of customers. A younger crowd was seemingly targeted with the release of the Frappuccino, as they often have a stronger desire for sugar than adults who do not mind the bitter taste of coffee. The idea that college students seek out a Starbucks just for a quick, familiar coffee fix is misleading. Starbucks offers more than just coffee, becoming more inclusive with their consumer base. A Frappuccino, a tea or, more commonly seen, a Refresher, is a popular and pricier alternative to sodas or energy drinks. A college student is not required to suffer through a cup of Starbucks coffee to be a Starbucks person.
Yet, even though Starbucks is one of the more popular coffee chains, it is not the only one. With that in mind, what makes Dunkin’ Donuts any different than Starbucks when it comes to impacting the college culture? To start with, the prices of both establishments differ. Not only is a latte at Starbucks more expensive but it also has a smaller ounce count per size. With this in mind, it is natural to wonder why there is the need for such an expensive latte at Starbucks. I believe that many people do not fully consider where their money goes when it is handed to the barista. The company has immense profits: “By the start of 2008, Starbucks operated sixteen thousand stores in forty countries. The previous year the company generated $7.8 billion in revenues, resulting in a $564 million profit” (Simon 10). Many consumers who fall under the Starbucks spell do not commonly know a baffling statistic like this. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that Starbucks consumers are not just paying for a cup of coffee; they are paying for a lifestyle, a community, and an identity. Starbucks’ success compared to Dunkin’ Donuts is expressed by the number of stores scattered around the globe. Starbucks has double the amount of stores as Dunkin’ Donuts, even though residents in the heart of Philadelphia—where Dunkin Donuts thrives—may think otherwise. The layout of the interiors of the stores also contributes to their popularity. Starbucks welcomes guests immediately when they enter the building. There may be couches scattered around the store and soft, soothing music playing in the background. Dunkin’ Donuts, however, appeals more to students who want to grab a coffee before they rush off to class. Students go to Dunkin’ Donuts if they want to satisfy their caffeine craving, while students go to Starbucks for a coffeehouse experience, something that has been praised and encouraged in the middle to upper class culture for years.
Students also may look at the higher price tag as worthwhile for participating in Starbucks’s Fair Trade initiative (as many do not realize that Dunkin Donuts is likewise Fair Trade). Starbucks has certainly claimed this initiative has driven up coffee prices (Simon 214). Fair Trade coffee is a certification label on Starbucks coffee, which suggests that the price of coffee is boosted in order to support workers in developing nations who harvest the beans (Haight). The Fair Trade coffee certification often allows the customer to justify their purchase by believing they are helping coffee workers by buying Starbucks’ three dollar caramel macchiato. Yet calculations by History professor and Starbucks specialist, Bryant Simon, suggest the opposite when comparing Starbucks to Dunkin’ Donuts:
Dunkin’ Donuts used 100 percent fair-trade-certified beans for its espresso-based drinks. Even if Starbucks paid 10 or 20 or even 30 percent more for its coffee than its competitor — and it is doubtful that it did — that would add up to about forty cents a pound, a dime less than the price difference of a single drink. But that’s just one latte. A shot of espresso, the coffee in a latte, uses about fifty beans… it is clear that Starbucks, not the farmers, is the one raking in the profits on its lattes. (214)
It is evident that Starbucks rakes in a lot of profit each year. Unfortunately, college students are not indirectly increasing the quality of life for a coffee harvester in a developing nation by purchasing a Starbucks latte on campus. Whether or not students realize it, the large amount of college students buying Starbucks is due to the brand identity and atmosphere of Starbucks, as opposed to the wellbeing of the hard workers in poverty stricken areas.
It is Starbucks’s branding and atmosphere, along with the personalized customer treatment and shared language, that suggest an underlying psychological motivation of self-gifting in Starbucks consumption. Self-gifting is the act of someone buying an item for him or herself as a reward or a form of comfort. Many companies utilize the concept of self-gifting to boost their sales. Ruzich stresses the influence of self-gifting by stating, “In its appeal to self-love, Starbucks sells comfort, indulgence, and relaxed affluence” (434). Bryant Simon additionally affirms, “In our postneed world where shopping has become a form of entertainment, self-expression, and identity making and where other institutions are receding, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people seek individual comfort and solace in consumption” (124). College is stressful, especially around the period of when final exams are given. It is not rare for a student to claim that they pulled an all-nighter, in which they avoided sleep in order to study for an exam. Caffeine is a component that assists greatly with all-nighters. Furthermore, it is common for a college student to seek a rewarding feeling after these exams are finished. Starbucks rushes in to fill this void with promises of sugary or caffeinated beverages. If a college student wishes to escape from the madness of complicated classes and vague professors, he or she can simply walk to the nearest Starbucks on campus, and if they are attending the University of Delaware, this Starbucks is probably a five-minute walk away. A stressed out UD student is just five minutes and three or four dollars away from a cup of complete comfort. Something that female consumers in particular take advantage of. When conducting a focus group directed on someone’s gender and their relationship with Starbucks, Bryant Simon discovered that women treated themselves to Frappuccinos more than men (127). Simon’s discovery is not alarming, as a majority of the drinks that Starbucks sells are categorized as “girly” drinks. Despite the results of the focus group, the process of self-gifting is not gendered. Starbucks reaches out to college students who are struggling with the stress of college and also rewards students who decide to take an exam or even show up to an early class.
As a generation gets older in age, the strict social scene dissipates. A thirty year old is not as inclined to fit in socially as a nineteen year old may be. Starbucks has a heavy impact on college campuses, where the desire to socially assimilate still thrives. Admittedly, the Starbucks lifestyle is appealing, yet the style of living portrayed is used primarily as a marketing strategy. The large amount of Starbucks located on college campuses is not there for convenience, but instead to target students. Starbucks is integrated with American culture; the Starbucks cup is present on numerous social media websites or in the hand of a highly admired celebrity. As a mainstream brand, Starbucks is employed to create an identity and a community. Starbucks acts as a shining example of how brands have a significant social impact on college students. This influence is demonstrated on the University of Delaware campus, where a student cannot go a day without seeing another student, or group of students, carrying a cup with an oddly familiar green logo.
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