On Starbucks, Part One: The Lidded Patronus

Starbucks is now a major force in tourist coffee in Europe. They’ve colonized the spaces you go in Paris if, on a homesick Sunday afternoon in the middle of your junior semester in Paris, you need to get your Chipotle or KFC on. They’ve also made some nice inroads in the airports, which we’ll hear more about later.

There are those who would tell you  the influx of Starbucks  is the End Times of individualization, and Europe’s coffee shops are in danger of being drowned by a corporate meta-incarnation of themselves. I disagree, largely because we’ve seen this all before with the incursion of McDonalds and other fast foods. French culture fights these things off as the body would a virus.

Stage 1 – injection and nasty immuno reaction  [Discusses the 2000 bombing of a French McDonalds, which killed an employee.]

Stage 2- isolation and healing [as evidenced by the fact that the Starbucks are being relegated to areas already popular with Tourists and homesick students.]

Stage 3 – adaptation, whereby the idea is picked up and replicated amongst France’s cultural white blood cells in native form. Hence places like Quick and Flunch, where you can get a burger and a decent white wine and eat it all with silverware and a nice pastry afterwards.

Exhibit A: Can you imagine finding this at a local Wendy’s?


France is in between stages 2 and 3 in the Starbucks contagion.  What is changing are the patterns of consumption.  Starbucks is not just about the coffee. It’s about the portability.   Portability is where Starbucks manages to wend it’s way into our day to day lives in a truly insidious way.  North Americans have adapted to the Starbucks cup in much the same way homo sapiens adapted when we domesticated the dog.  Our entire physical and emotional balance – the bags we chose, our walking style, and our sense of wholeness- is now centered around the idea that one hand is going to be occupied carrying around a lidded coffee cup.

As I packed for my vacation, I was faced with two weeks of being without my metal lidded Starbucks coffee mug.  I packed it with the actual thought that I was “treating myself” to a bit of homemade normalcy.  Not only did I chose to carry it,  but I used it on a road trip to Lourdes.   The thought of the walk to the car without the coffee cup, skipping the dance of putting it on the roof while I buckled my daughter into the car, missing the act of settling myself into the driver’s seat without situating my coffee, was unbearably foreign.  Americans are lost without our fix- and that habit is spreading much faster than any brand name could, Gone are the days when the french sit for 45 minutes enjoying their once ounce cup of rocket fuel – there is no coffee bar in France that doesn’t offer version of the 12 ounce to-go cup.

I’ve digressed..  My reptilian brain was overjoyed to see Starbucks in both London and Paris because it meant I would be able to add two cities to my Starbucks’ mug collection. Yep…I’m that girl. For the uninitiated:  There are generally two stripes of city-specific mugs. One, the standard issue with some iconic city images stamped on the front and the city name emblazoned on the front in Starbucks type. I have some of these, but they’re not usually the ones I pick up.  This group suffers from too much uniformity – there is no way to tell if you’re dealing with one from Tokyo or Cedar Rapids.  The second type is usually some artistic take on the city itself, or the specific neighborhood of the city. Those are the ones I grab.  I have maybe eight total mugs now.  People who know me pick up type one for me because they know I’m an enthusiast. I pick up type two when I travel.

I can’t even pretend to be apologetic about it.  My collection  fills me with such a sense of personal well being. I don’t know why.  It has something to do with the idea of having a collection of things from around the world (or the western hemisphere) that all share a common tasteful aesthetic. There is usually a good memory or two around the trip associated with the mug, but they’re not soooo different from each other that they don’t fit in with the decorative whole. They’re also typically of generous enough size that they function day to day as I stumble around the house with my first cup of coffee.

I’ve digressed again. I obtained my lovely Paris Starbucks mug on the Rue St. Germain on Friday. It’s black, with a white outline of the city imposed on it, and several important uniquely Parisian Metro signs interspersed on the white outline. Oh and the Starbucks logo is prominent, but that’s to be expected.  I felt stupid being in Starbucks for even the five minutes that it took to buy the mug. I purchased no coffee.

My London opportunity cropped up unexpectedly, as there is now a Starbucks in the main waiting hall of Heathrow’s terminal 5. Could it be, I thought? A two-for-one mug purchasing experience? Might I get two of the same themed mug in the same trip from two of the world’s major capitals? Clearly this chance could not be foregone, in spite of the fact I was lugging about 45 pounds of hand luggage already.

My daughter and I forded upstream to the Starbucks through the foot traffic headed out to the gates. A surprising number of the walkers were holding lidded coffee mugs, an expression of relief on their faces as they were reunited with their caffeinated guide dogs after an unknown period of kinesio-psychic uncertainty.  The bliss as they  moved forward with their Starbucks latte Patronus.  I cannot accurately describe it.  The closest I can come is the last scene of a medical drama when an accident victim manages to move their toes, regaining feeling in their lower body where doubt had lingered.  That or Timmy’s face in the last scene of Lassie Come Home.

When we reached the Starbucks, the queue was at least forty people deep.  The mug was there.  As anticipated  it looked similar to the Paris mug except that the white background featured London icons and a picture of a phone booth.  Still, it was hard to jump over the mental hurdle of standing in a forty person line for a mug.  I looked at the mug, looked at the line, and gave up. Then looked at the line, the mug, and re-upped on my crazy mission.  In the manner of chaotic Starbucks efficiency everywhere, the elapsed time between getting in line with the mug and cramming it into my overstuffed tote bag was an action packed 10 minutes.

We sat down with my treasure in some waiting seats adjacent to the Starbucks. I proceeded to check my email, all the while relishing the pleasant back-of-brain buzz that accompanies an exciting material acquisition. The  reptilian lobe was already envisioning the moment of arriving home and reuniting the two mugs, staring at them next to each other, and lovingly placing them in the cupboard next to Zurich and Maui. It was then, however, that the story took a turn for the dark side…both of Starbucks and of human nature.

And here are the mugs:screenshot_861 screenshot_862

Conscious Uncoupling: When your brand hits a fork in the road, take it.

Two days ago Gwenyth Paltrow amd Chris Martin announced the end of their 11 year marriage.  The announcement termed this transition in their lives as a process of “Conscious Uncoupling,” and the collective interweb has been roaring ever since.

I know very little about the science and art of product branding.  What I do know is that when it’s done right, branding is much like that special smell at the entrance of every Nordstrom’s –  something a consumer isn’t supposed to experience consciously but just recognize.  The only time we really notice it is when it  hits a wrong note, or plain old takes a swan dive that leaves us realizing we’re being “handled.”  People love good branding.  People resent the hell out of being handled.

Gwenyth and I reached a fork in the road of my understanding quite a while ago. It happened not when she decided to become a lifestyle guru, not when she published an exhaustive list of her various daily mom tasks that product – placed in the thousands of dollars. No, it happened at a subtler point then that, when she published a cookie recipe from the then-wife of Billy Joel and referred to him as “William.”  WILLIAM JOEL had come over from the evening and shared his lovely cookies.  William Joel?  The guy who sang “Pressure?” and “Allentown?” It was incredibly ostentatious, an apex of ridiculousness, and I wasn’t signing on for the slide down.

To me it seems that Gwenyth’s  GOOP mission is to promote an image in which all of life’s various wrinkles, informalities, impurities and imperfections had been ironed out and scrubbed away leaving nothing but a flawlessly laundered organic linen sheet where her humanity might once have been. It is an image of a pure, clear and conscious lifestyle that I have no doubt she firmly believes in.  The problem is that no one really wants a friend (or lifestyle guru) who makes you self-conscious of, well, everything in your life that hasn’t been powerwashed, boiled and steam dried. To read any excerpt from GOOP was enough to make me suddenly feel like I’d sprouted a second chin, developed heart disease, and casually been poisoning my daughter with ipad screens and inorganic sheets.

Conscious Uncoupling is what arose from an intersection between Gwenyth’s humanity and her image.  The public’s reaction to Conscious Uncoupling is a burning example of what happens when your brand hits crisis and shifts into handling.

There are a thousand more relatable ways to announce their separation, but I am hard pressed to find one that wouldn’t have shot a hole in to a very well cultivated brand.  Admitting pain, anger, humiliation on her part leads to mental images of Gwenyth curled up with a pint of ice cream and a bottle of bourbon giving it all a big old ugly cry.  There is no room for that in  the GOOP Yoga Fueled breathe-it-out way we’ve been served to date.

Further complicating the issue is the value  of Gwenyth’s acting career. Meg Ryan  never recovered after admitting an infidelity with Russell Crowe. Sadie Frost is still rather buttonholed by Jude Law’s dalliance with the nanny (and later sienna Miller).  And these two example illustrate the point without even having to mention Brangelina and the ongoing existence of Team Aniston. So you have what’s effectively two very lucrative brands- both GOOP and Gwenyth-  headed towards some rocky shoals, even if no one really did anything wrong.

Seen from that perspective the Conscious Uncoupling terminology makes a lot of sense if you’re merely trying to preserve a brand and not evolve it. It sticks close to the core GOOP message about health, simplicity, and mindfulness while also making it plain that there will be no PR disasters rearing their head ahead of the premiere of the next Iron Man flick.  This doesn’t make it any less over the top though.

I admit, I openly and gleefully riffed on it.  I’m woman enough to admit to an attack of schadenfruede when it happens, especially when it becomes comedy gold in the process.

I started this post by saying I didn’t understand branding as either an art or science.  I do understand that humans at base don’t want to know it when they’re being handled, which means it’s best to stick to the genuine when you can find it.  My biggest beef with Conscious Uncoupling is that Gwenyth and team wasted an opportunity to get human again at a point where it’s plainly overdue. Who wouldn’t want to read about Gwenyth’s decision to stack every piece of fried food on the block on top of a big pan of mac and cheese and hide in the house until it was eaten?  Who wouldn’t go down that road with her and come out the other side of it slightly more interested flax oil, knowing the same someone recommending it had the courage to stand up and say, “My life hurts right now.”  Perhaps we will get there at some point. Right now what we’re left with is the impression that the whole thing has been wrapped in a gleaming white light and stashed someplace we are not supposed to look.

Update: After a few days of letting the public clamor, Gwenyth released another GOOP-rooted statement. “P.S. CM and I in deep gratitude for the support of so many.”  Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair, doing what both Richard Lawson and Vanity Fair usually do when confronted with all things Gwenyth, had this to say. And the shade grows ever longer as the shadows stretch to meet the setting sun.