Thursday, September 25, 2008

$tarbucks: Your Community Coffee Store!

STARBUCKS HAS CHUTZPAH. Fashioning a warm-and-cozy, earth-toned, earth-friendly, feel-good glow around itself is a Starbucks specialty. Its use of art is a case in point. You go into one of their stores and you see art on the walls that fits in with the rootsy, funky, artsy vibe they fervently try to create (and then replicate exactly across nine kajillion locations). You look at it, or perhaps just unconsciously take it in via peripheral vision, and it feels nice, it feels warm, it feels soothing.

It's also glibly self-promoting. As it turns out, the art is actually a subtle image ad for Starbucks itself. Take, for instance, the piece that pictures a tree of words -- words such as "coffee," "love," "passion," "place," "community," "people." And various inspirational sayings, or presumable comments from satisfied Starbucks customers. The piece is captioned: "The Deeper the ROOTS, the Higher the Reach." What is that supposed to mean? Nothing, really. Like an Obama campaign speech, it has no meaning; it's about how they'd like you to feel about the brand.

Generally, the faker and more uncaring and more remote a huge corporate business is, the more it has to advertise to us about how real and caring and community-focused it really is. While I don't know the hearts of the folks behind Starbucks, it's not really about their conscious intent; it's about the system, and system logic inevitably drives out diversity and individuality.

The irony is that one block away from the local Starbucks store where I first saw the "tree" piece was the former location of an actual community coffeehouse -- founded by a guy I went to high school with -- that this Starbucks had helped kill off. In a Starbucks world, "community" is marketing copy and corporate art emanating from a headquarters hundreds of miles away. The people you live with? Ha, screw 'em -- they're just a revenue stream.

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