Brand Hypocrisy at Starbucks - Douglas B. Holt*
Efforts by the Ethiopian coffee sector to trademark Ethiopia's most valuable coffee brands have come to a screeching halt, courtesy of The Starbucks Corporation. The coffee sector is pursuing trademarks in all major international markets on Sidamo, Yirgecheffe, and Harrar so that they can then apply sound marketing techniques to increase thecommercial value of these brands. The goal is to significantly raise the incomes of many of the 15 million Ethiopians who are dependent on the coffee trade. Given that Ethiopia ranks amongst the poorest countries in the world—some 80% of its citizens live on less than $2 a day—this innovative and self-reliant effort to enhance the value of Ethiopia's commerce should be receiving unanimous cheersworldwide.
Instead, Starbucks has worked with its industry lobbyists to pressure the US Patent and Trademark Office to turn down Ethiopia's trademark applications. As a result, the Office has refused to approve two of the three trademarks. And Starbucks has snubbed all attempts by Ethiopian officials to broker an acceptable agreement. Now that Oxfam has taken up Ethiopia's cause in a new mediacampaign, generating some 70,000 complaints so far, Starbucks has launched a media counter-offensive, publicly scolding Ethiopia's efforts. Even The Economist , that avowed champion of commerce, has taken Starbucks side to help squash this incipient effort to generate economic value. What gives?
In my view, these actions by Starbucks management are not only deeply hypocritical. Ironically, they alsopose a serious threat to Starbucks' brand equity. To unpack why this is so, we need first to understand the key role played by these Ethiopian brands in Starbucks' extraordinary success.
Starbucks Relies on Ethiopian Coffee Brands
What distinguishes Starbucks products from the many thousands of other coffee products on the market is powerful brand symbolism. Through its coffees, packaging,store design, baristas, Italian-icized lexicon, and music, Starbucks promotes a very accessible highbrow worldview that has had wide appeal amongst its college-educated “creative class” target. Starbucks invites customers to join its “cosmopolitan connoisseur” culture, which can be yours simply by grabbing a latte at your nearby Starbucks.
One of the most important techniques Starbucks uses todevelop this cosmopolitan connoisseur symbolism is the promotion of its coffees as artisanal products. All Starbucks coffees are named, packaged, and promoted to imbue them with the aura of traditional local craft, exotic coffees produced by peoples far removed from modern life in the North. The leading coffee brands from Ethiopia— Sidamo , Harrar , and Yirgacheffe —have played a starring role inallowing Starbucks to claim these artisanal and exotic qualities.
Starbucks markets coffees in a manner very similar to the marketing of fine wines: writing flowery prose about terrior characteristics and idiosyncratic artisanal processes steeped in local traditions. From the Starbucks Website:
From the birthplace of coffee, Sidamo is highly prized by coffee buyers from around the world. Itfeatures a fleeting, floral aroma with a bright yet soft finish and, like the best Sidamo coffees, a wonderful hint of lemon.
Each coffee is presented as a product of artistry and tradition, alive with “native” folk culture far removed from the lifeways of Starbucks customers. Starbucks trades on the fact that Ethiopian producers are not commercially minded multinationals, but, rather, simple peasantswho exist outside the capitalist marketplace:
Typically, Ethiopian coffee is grown in small, backyard gardens and sold at daily auctions.
Ethiopian coffee growers serve as particularly effective symbolic material for Starbucks. As the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia offers the most authentic coffee experience in a marketplace dominated by mass-marketed brands. African imagery—photos of...
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