There are few brands on the planet that people love to hate as much as Starbucks.
Nor, for that matter, are there many brands that folks so much love to love — which just might explain why a Dumb Starbucks parody pop-up store in Los Angeles this week became something more akin to a cultural shrine.
Starbucks has a problem that every other brand only wishes it shared: It's too damn good. It makes money hand over fist. It turned employees formerly known as counter help into baristas — then slipped them into catchy duds and put some basic benefits into their pockets. It sells the only gift card, that, when given in $5 increments, is still viewed by the receiver as a mini-treasure.
Oh, did we forget to mention that it makes killer coffee?
But 43-year-old Starbucks has another problem that few other brands can muster: fear and loathing. Starbucks is everywhere. Its tentacles stretch to 20,184 locations (as of Tuesday) in 60 countries. Some independent coffee shop owners — and their customers — view Starbucks as a pariah. There are gun owners who loathe the fact that they're no longer welcome to waltz into the stores, gun in tow. There are millions who cringe at its sheer audacity to charge up to 5 bucks for a cup of fancy coffee — where folks wait in long lines for it. Then, there's that all-powerful world of social media, where it's always in vogue to Starbucks-bash.
"There has always been a thin line between love and hate," offers Scott Bedbury, the brand guru extraordinaire whose résumé includes past stints at both Nike and Starbucks as marketing chief. "It's a far better thing than living in the middle where most brands just fade away."
Which brings us back to the Dumb Starbucks hubbub. You know, that faux Starbucks store that little-known TV comedian Nathan Fielder opened for his 15 minutes of parasitic fame. Smart guy, this Fielder. He knew that all he had to do was parody Starbucks and eager customers — and a media throng would soon follow. The Dumb Starbucks meme quickly went viral on social media. Never mind that the health department quickly closed the joint.
I've got this theory. It's called the why-didn't-I-think-of-that-first? theory. There are millions of Americans who hate Starbucks — and its founder, Howard Schultz — mainly because he took a great idea and ran with it, not just down the field, but across the planet. At 60, Schultz not only still has his hair, he has his wits. He has figured out that coffee is just the ground floor. The Starbucks mermaid's mug is appearing on so much stuff these days, you'd think she was a rock star.
She is, above all else, the symbol of affordable luxury. You may not be able to afford a McMansion — or a Lexus to park in its garage — but millions of us are willing to make that $5 splurge at Starbucks simply because it helps us feel a bit better about ourselves. It is, after all, the "luxury brand" in its category," says Bradford Hudson, senior lecturer in marketing at Boston College.
Starbucks is everything that we love and hate, says Bryant Simon, author of Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks. If Starbucks were a vegetable, he tells me with a straight face, it would be kale. The Starbucks brand isn't about the coffee, he says. Never has been.
It's about us.