The Starbucks Aesthetic
WHEN Bette Gottfried, a 48-year-old regular at a Starbucks in Ardsley, N.Y., saw that her favorite coffeehouse was promoting a film, she wasn’t immediately interested. “At first I was leery,” said Ms. Gottfried, dressed in workout clothes, wearing her hair in a ponytail and sitting near the window with her daily decaf mocha (“low-fat milk, no foam, no whipped”). “I thought, ‘Who are they to get involved in the movies?’ ”
Ultimately, however, she decided to take her 9-year-old daughter to see the film, “Akeelah and the Bee,” precisely because of the involvement of Starbucks. “I trusted seeing the movie, because it was promoted here,” she said. After all, she liked the company’s coffee; she had already bought and liked several CD’s it produced and sold, compilations of music by Carole King, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. Why wouldn’t she like a Starbucks movie? She did, and now she’s considering picking up its latest cultural sales item: “For One More Day,” a book by Mitch Albom.
But Ms. Gottfried’s question is a valid one. Starbucks is clearly very good at selling coffee, but why should it become involved in the movies — and books and CD’s, for that matter? And why would consumers trust its taste in books and films any more than they’d trust, say, Simon & Schuster’s taste in Ethiopia Gemadro Estate decaf?
Yet the chain is increasingly positioning itself as a purveyor of premium-blend culture. “We’re very excited, because despite how much we’ve grown, these are the early stages for development,” said Howard Schultz, the chairman of Starbucks. “At our core, we’re a coffee company, but the opportunity we have to extend the brand is beyond coffee; it’s entertainment.”
In an early misstep, Starbucks started offering Joe, a literary magazine that appeared in 1999 and lasted all of six months before Mr. Schultz decided, on the basis of slow sales, that the product “didn’t add any value.” But since then Starbucks has successfully promoted a slew of hits, from the Ray Charles CD “Genius Loves Company,” a joint venture with Concord Records that won several Grammy Awards and sold 800,000 copies at Starbucks alone, to a recent CD of Meryl Streep reading “The Velveteen Rabbit.” In some cases, as with the Ray Charles album, Starbucks partners with an existing label; but even when it merely stocks another label’s titles, said Ronn Werre, president of EMI Music Marketing, it is typically responsible for at least 10 percent of overall sales; when it recently started selling the Frank Sinatra classic “In the Wee Small Hours,” sales of that CD went up twentyfold. This month, Starbucks landed a coveted and very prominent retail section on the iTunes home page, one of only two brands to enjoy that privilege.
Mr. Albom’s book, published by Hyperion, marks the next piece of the expanding Starbucks cultural portfolio. The chain’s creative team has already been looking for additional original films to present and is thinking about producing movies down the road. And Mr. Schultz said it was “not out of the question that we would self-publish” new authors. Some of the chain’s projects have been relatively intimate and artsy — for example, two several-day-long salons, one at the Sundance Film Festival, one in New York, where the doors were open to free spoken-word performances, musical collaborations and one-act plays. But the company clearly wants to have a national impact as well.
On Thursday, in hopes of sparking communitywide dialogue about “For One More Day,” 25 Starbucks stores around the country will feature discussion groups. (To ease the flow of conversation, free coffee will be provided.)
Sounding a bit caffeinated himself, Mr. Schultz explained, “With the assets Starbucks has in terms of number of stores, and the trust we have with the brand, and the profile of our customers, we’re in a unique position to partner with creators of unique content to create an entertainment platform and an audience that’s unparalleled.”
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. About 15 years ago, Mr. Schultz said, Starbucks began “to observe the fracturing of the retail music industry and the consumer experience becoming something that our core customers were no longer enjoying.” So they started selling CD’s of the music they’d already been playing in the stores.
It still works. “If I hear a CD they’re playing, I generally like it,” Bette Gottfried, back in the Ardsley store, said. “It’s who I am — baby boomer, upper middle class, a little hippyish, rockish. ...”
As Mr. Schultz sees it, customers get a new cultural experience and Starbucks gets a “halo” — the associations people have with beloved music, with “quality, good will, trust, intelligence.”
To cultivate that halo, he built an entertainment division, with an office in Seattle and another in Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Nikkole Denson, 36, who ran the entertainment and film departments of Magic Johnson’s entertainment company, is the chain’s director of business management, in charge of fielding and negotiating film and book selections. (Starbucks works closely with the William Morris Agency as well.) She says “Akeelah and the Bee,” a movie about a young black girl from South Los Angeles with a talent for spelling, is a perfect example of her company’s cultural profile.
“Starbucks is all about community and inspiration, and everything in that movie seemed aligned with that — it has that human connection,” Ms. Denson said. “It doesn’t have to be a family film, but it does have to be socially relevant.” As for the books she’s selecting — they won’t all be by name brands like Mr. Albom — she says she wants books that provide “almost an education without being preachy.” Yes, they should be inspiring, but also, she hopes, challenging: “not racy or dark, but thought-provoking.”
A major player in the company’s music business is Timothy Jones, manager of compilations and music programming. Mr. Jones, 58, ran a small independent record shop in Seattle until 1987, when his business folded and he started managing the Starbucks across the street. Customers there asked if they could buy the mixes of Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis he was playing, and that’s how it all got started. What he looks for now, he says, is “a believable sound that isn’t too harsh.”
Mr. Jones championed Madeleine Peyroux when she was a critically acclaimed singer who had never quite hit it big; since her album “Careless Love” started selling at Starbucks, its sales have CD tripled.
“We do our best with a new artist when there’s sort of an NPR buzz going on around him, the stars-in-the-making,” Mr. Jones said. “Then we take a Decemberists or a Madeleine Peyroux and put it out there in the spotlight of the coffeehouse, and people standing in line say, ‘I’ve heard about this person.’ ”
Balancing out the newer artists are the classics Starbucks sells packaged in coffee hues of sepia: Tony Bennett, Etta James, Marvin Gaye. “It’s like European-style roasted coffee,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s reaching back, it’s timeless.”
THE more cultural products with which Starbucks affiliates itself, the more clearly a Starbucks aesthetic comes into view: the image the chain is trying to cultivate and the way it thinks it’s reflecting its consumer.
There’s the faintest whiff of discriminating good taste around everything Starbucks sells, a range of products designed, on some level, to flatter the buyer’s self-regard. Starbucks stores don’t carry “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Beatles album everyone’s mother could name; they carry “Revolver,” a critical darling without the same overplayed name recognition.
Might DVD sales be the next frontier? And if so, which DVD’s? Ms. Denson wouldn’t say, but it’s an entertaining exercise for a reporter to try to guess: For the holiday season, perhaps a movie like “White Christmas” — it’s retro-chic, it’s got the classy crooner Bing Crosby going for it, yet it’s not quite as overplayed as, say, “Miracle on 34th Street.” Throw in some never-before-seen outtakes, package it in a beautiful silver and black box. ...
“You’re pretty close there,” Ms. Denson said. “Very, very close.” So close, in fact, that later that day she sent over a press release: Starting next month, in conjunction with Turner Classics, the “White Christmas” DVD will be available exclusively at Starbucks, packaged for the first time with a Decca recording of the film’s soundtrack and an informative 12-page booklet that includes a list of other must-see Christmas movies. Inspirational but not hokey, familiar but not ubiquitous, gently educational — it’s tailor- made for the NPR-listening type Mr. Jones imagines as the typical Starbucks consumer.
Mr. Schultz said the company was eager to offer customers products that are “out of the mainstream.” Starbucks itself used to be out of the mainstream, back when it started in Seattle. But that was before it took over the world (well, almost). Championing the little guy — Ms. Peyroux, some new bossa nova artist — can be a relatively easy way to offset the sense of alienation that overreplicated chains inspire.
“It adds to the emotional connection with the customer,” said Mr. Schultz, and keeps the Starbucks experience from feeling, as he put it, “antiseptic.”
Of course, the moment Starbucks chooses to promote an artist — prominent space on the company’s Web page, access to its 5,400 stores throughout the country, possible discussion groups and so on — that artist almost by definition becomes mainstream.
But that may not matter to consumers. “You know, it’s not that different from feeling cool because you’ve got an Apple computer,” said the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Mr. Lethem was one of the well-regarded, not-quite-mainstream artists who were featured at the New York Starbucks salon, which he experienced as a supportive environment for creative work. As for the Starbucks sensibility itself, he said, “It’s the faint affect of a counterculture shackled to the most ordinary, slightly upscale product” — just more of what he describes as the “faux-alternative” aesthetic that’s been around for decades.
These days the so-called long tail model of cultural consumption — the 1.5 million songs on iTunes, the 55,000 films on Netflix — is getting a lot of attention among business theorists, and teenage boys are getting a lot of attention from the entertainment complex. But Starbucks relies on a previous model: a narrow range of blockbuster hits geared toward an older, educated audience.
The book publishing industry could benefit from such a tastemaking force, said Laurence Kirshbaum, founder of the LJK Literary Management agency. “One of the big problems in the book industry is that outside e of Oprah, there’s no really widely accepted authority to recommend books,” Mr. Kirshbaum said.
At the same time, he expressed concern on behalf of the traditional bookstore. “The concern is that, in a business that’s essentially flat, can Starbucks provide additional buyers? Or is it going to be pilfering buyers from existing accounts?”
Thomas Hay, a 48-year-old contractor from Hartsdale, N.Y., said Starbucks helped him by editing down his cultural choices. Looking over the selections the company makes, he said, he has the impression that “some people of caring hearts and minds have looked at this and felt it was worthwhile and beneficial and would create a good vibe in the world.”
Karen Golden, 43, and Kirk Sipe, 53, also customers at that Ardsley Starbucks, said that they were unlikely to buy a CD there — at $15, they could get it cheaper from Amazon — but that the company’s choices solidified their respect for the brand. “They could go with what’s ultramarketable, but good for them for promoting people who don’t get airplay,” said Ms. Golden, a psychotherapist from nearby Dobbs Ferry. Asked to describe the kind of music and movies they expected to find there, they rattled off language that could have come straight from a Starbucks marketing plan: “quality,” “what will endure,” “people who have something to say.”
When Starbucks executives describe the goal of the company’s cultural extensions, they invariably lean on the word discovery. “Customers say one of the reasons they come is because they can discover new things — a new coffee from Rwanda, a new food item. So extending that sense of discovery into entertainment is very natural for us. That’s all part of the Starbucks experience,” said Anne Saunders , senior vice president of global brand strategy and communications.
Even the keyboardist Herbie Hancock, whose recent album “Possibilities” has been a strong seller at Starbucks, buys the idea. “Going to Starbucks,” he said, “you feel kind of hip. I feel kind of hip when I go to Starbucks; that’s how I know!” He said people of every age had told him they weren’t familiar with his work until it appeared there, then he called back to say he’d never gotten better promotion in his life.
Mr. Schultz said one the most valuable assets in the Starbucks culture project was the chain’s wireless Web-access network. “What’s coming is an opportunity to leverage WiFi as a channel,” he said, “and that channel is going to have the ability to expose our customers digitally to unique content.” He added: “It’s not a stretch to think of Starbucks in a new way as a network. A new channel with 12,500 points of distribution,” with every point representing a Starbucks store around the world.
And that channel, no doubt, will be geared toward the European-coffee-drinking, CD-liner-notes-reading, singer-songwriter-loving Starbucks customers, who now not only relax at the same coffee shops but also go home and listen to the same jazz release while possibly reading the same reliably entertaining, even inspirational, book. At the Starbucks in Ardsley, prominently displayed on the wall is a poster of an elephant lumbering comfortably along in the burnt-sienna rays of the sun. Below the image is printed, in typewriterlike letters, a message from Starbucks that the company has made, through its good taste, increasingly tempting: “Move with the herd.”