From Starbucks to Barbucks: Hyperreal Gentrification in Your Neighborhood
Next time you're passing your local Starbucks, take a moment and reflect on what you like about it. After all, there is more to a Starbucks store than a $5 cup of coffee. When Starbucks began to expand beyond the Seattle region, it targeted urbanites during an era of general prosperity, and quickly built on that base by appealing to those interested in the social experience of drinking coffee in a coffee house environment. Their industrial designers were tasked to develop spaces that made people feel like stopping to relax, buying a $6 coffee drink with a $5 baked good, and appearing comfortable in that atmosphere.
Several years later, Starbucks had moved from a successful small brand to a worldwide coffee empire. The brand was perfectly aligned, from the design of the spaces, to the staff decorum, to the menu's "European inspiration." Before 1995, you might only expect to see people chilling out and taking in a cappuccino in a coffee shop in Italy or France. Terms like macchiato, latte and con panna meant nothing to the average Joe with his cup-of-Joe, and americano simply made us turn our heads while in Romanic-language countries.
Starbucks became an international phenomenon relatively quickly, and represented a specific kind of American brand: something the world (and Americans) saw as more sophisticated than how McDonalds globally represented America, and something we readily adopted because of a strange sense of gentrified familiarity. By 2000, being able to afford drinks at Starbucks came to mean being a sort of sophisticate ... someone with things to do and people to see. It wasn't provincial, it wasn't homely, and it wasn't a necessity to your daily life. We're not talking about any ordinary cup of coffee ... this was a Frappucino!
Just as McDonalds represented an American inclination toward a idealized 1950s car hop/burger joint, a development with a Starbucks meant that the developers were trying to encourage that sense of sophisticated urbanity. (Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.)
But something was clearly off. Almost like a Jean Baudrillard manifesto, stepping into a Starbucks and ordering a coffee in Italian had a certain degree of hacky falseness to it. The more you travel, the more you notice cookie-cutter-designed Starbucks stores all over the world, in both urban and rural areas. They all serve the same kinds of coffee, mixed in ways that are easily standardized (and that you can just as easily mix at home). Most importantly, these spaces feel comfortable and sophisticated because they've been deliberately engineered to feel that way. There's no magic pixie dust that makes it a better environment than sitting on your porch, or a smarter or more calming place than your local library. It's just a place to buy coffee.
Except that what you're buying is not coffee. You're buying a branded lifestyle, a version of reality that is structured to best appeal to you as you see yourself through coffee drinks, comfortable chairs, and Billie Holiday tunes playing in the background. It's not about ordering in Italian, it's not about "your special drink," and it's not about an alternative lifestyle. It's about making you feel like Starbucks is your brand; like the design and products--bland and gentrified as they may be compared to real Italian cafes--safely integrate into your personality. It's your personal portal to sophistication, happiness, or whatever else you're missing in your life that a $5 cup of coffee can give you.
Architectural branding is the kind of work that fetches big bucks for architecture firms. Gensler Architects, for example, designed Apple Stores to make users (i.e. you) feel like they're visiting some utopian, streamlined outpost of the cyperprep future. This design complements a branding scheme that's been standardized across the board: that Apple stuff is easier, better and more revolutionary than PC stuff. One only has to spend a moment in an Apple store to understand just how much of the environment has been designed to influence his or her behavior. It's even obvious when you casually look into an Apple Store.
The practice of using industrial/organizational psychologists to design spaces that evoke certain feelings is much more common than you may expect. Disneyland deliberately overwhelms your senses with brighter colors, stronger smells, louder noises, and inconsistent shapes and directions to make you feel like you are lost in an immense and endless environment. The tiles and bricks on the ground are variably designed and arranged, the shapes and sizes of building are diverse and unnaturally warped, trees and landscape elements are asymmetrical, and color schemes reflect hues which draw out specific emotions. And these same design strategies work everywhere ... just look for them as you walk through your local mall.
The idea behind hyperreality is that at some point you stop being able to distinguish what is real from what is fantasy. You begin to think that the strategically-designed Apple Store is more modern than another (possibly more modern) store because of its aesthetic alone. You begin to limit your vision of the jungle, the medieval ages, or the future to hokey Disneylandish representations. You start to think that Starbucks is what Italian coffee tastes like.
With this in mind, recent news that Starbucks is starting to provide an evening menu of wine, cured meats, and cheeses means that Starbucks will be re-branding its store designs to appeal to both daytime coffee people and nighttime wine and cheese people. Regions like southern California are already beginning to see these changes. "But why re-brand? I'd be open to trying Starbucks for a bit of booze in the evening," you might think. But the very fact that you automtically equate Starbucks as a go-to place for wine is strong enough evidence that some degree of architectural rebranding needs to be done.
So how exactly does a company transition between being a natural, organic-feeling coffee house to a natural, organic-feeling coffee and wine house? This is Starbucks' key issue. The market for $4 to $6 coffees is already saturated. After 40 years, Starbucks has done such a good job at branding itself that it's hard to imagine Starbucks selling drinks that aren't sweet or coffee-related. In fact, when I read "Starbucks wine," I immediately imaged a sweet wine, and those are exactly the kinds of name and design branding issues they are going to have to deal with head on.
So what are they doing about it? Just watch this USA Today video and see for yourself
You can already see their architectural re-branding in action, while they sustain the faux-European flavor: long tables a la German ale houses, tall bar areas a la French cafes, dark and organic natural tones a la British pubs. And eco-friendly, the international buzzword of the century. From the responses from the man and woman in the video, this strategy seems to be working. The woman even says that she couldn't tell it was a Starbucks from outside. Why? Because Starbucks quickly realized that the best way to re-brand itself to appeal to the nighttime market would be to drop the Starbucks name. Starbucks, as a brand name, has simply become too internationally renowned for a standardized type of coffee drink and a standardized type of space design. The only way to change that is to literally become another brand. Their suggested name? 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. There's nothing inherently wrong with changing its name to appeal to a larger market, and if Starbucks can find a couple of great wines and cured meats, why wouldn't you consider visiting one for an after-work snack and sip?
But the spaces and products are still designed to appeal to that seemingly sophisticated, seemingly urban, and seemingly thoughtful target market of people who expect a simple glass of wine to cost ten to fifteen dollars. More importantly, these people may come to believe that a wine and coffee bar named "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea" is a local spot, where a few local artists were asked to speckle their works around a place that served decent but pricey coffee, wine and snacky things.
Of course, they'd be wrong. 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea would actually be a space that's designed in a way that safely achieves the goals of the Starbucks Corporation while making you feel like you're safely experiencing something sophisticated and urban. Starbucks wants you to feel like a localite enjoying a local brand, when in actuality you will be experiencing an international chain that utilizes gentrified hyperreality to resemble a cool neighborhood spot. Naturally, it'll feel cool and urban and sophisticated and European. But it won't actually be any of those things.
It'll still be a couple of rooms where an international corporation is using every trick it's got to sell you a $5 cup of coffee. And soon, a $10 glass of wine.
[Article originally published on FourStory.org]