Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Starbucks and cultural respect in design as business strategy

Starbucks is one of the most recognizable global retail brands today. Its branding is universally known, with its ubiquitous green and white mermaid logo reliably present worldwide and its slate of coffee and tea products also dependably the same. While many consumers may find consistent branding and the resulting quality standards to be expected along with it comforting, one of the undeniable criticisms of globalization has been that localization – native customs and characteristics that often have deep historic and cultural significance – can end up subverted in favor of international sameness.

Indeed, companies such as Starbucks have struggled in some markets to import their menus and store designs to communities which may be resistant to connecting with what can be seen as a generic, foreign experience. Apart from just lacking appeal or seeming strange, sometimes these companies can offend local norms or fail to fit into the communities which they wish to court for business. While sometimes novelty of a brand can create allure or even cult status for the company’s products with curious consumers, more often, Imposing a company and its products on a community in a non-assimilative way does not likely make for a successful competitive strategy.

Starbucks has faced its challenges importing its distinctive coffee shop brand and products to new communities over the years. Even within the United States, local coffee houses with loyal customer bases have put up resistance to a major corporate brand setting up shop in communities such as Venice Beach, California which have preferred small, local businesses to fit with an indie, alternative vibe. Outside of the United States, the powerful social value of “coffee culture,” representing a social and community activity rather than just a caffeine and snack break, has sometimes not jived well with perceptions of the Starbucks brand. Criticisms of the products themselves come from people who have high expectations for bespoke coffee that they don’t feel Starbucks satisfies or, on the other end, a standard idea that coffee is quick, cheap, and on-the-go only, in light of which Starbucks seems expensive and inconvenient.

One striking way that Starbucks can address these objections is to seek to fit within and contribute to the community authentically and meaningfully. In Kyoto, Japan, the Starbucks Coffee Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Tea Parlor is an amazing example of how a company can demonstrate respect towards a community and its traditions in the design of its public spaces. This Starbucks is located in a traditional wooden house, with subdued colors and branding on its exterior, which fits aesthetically and culturally in the historic neighborhood where it is located. On the inside, the authenticity of the retail experience to its cultural environment continues, with tatami (straw) matting on the floors and traditional Japanese garden in the back courtyard by the coffee bar. Rather than appearing in contrast to the other businesses in its area, this Starbucks blends powerfully into its distinctive surroundings. Starbucks does not seem here like it is trying to impose its brand or style, but rather to show respect for the traditions of the very historic Gion district of Kyoto.

Joining the community in which the store is located, rather than setting itself apart from it, is a powerful expression of social responsibility and engagement for a brand to make as it seeks to attract and appeal to customers. Matching with the experience and aesthetic of such a distinctive area as Gion, which was originally developed as a district in the Middle Ages and is one of the most well-known geisha districts in Japan with the Yakasha Shrine at its center, is a challenging but inspiring business strategy. This values-based approach to growth and design leads to sustainable expansion and competition for a brand such as Starbucks, which can benefit tremendously from positioning itself as sensitive and loyal to local communities and their characters.

For more on this interesting Starbucks outlet as well as Starbucks locations in other countries that aim to honor their communities with their design aesthetic, check out this CNN feature article.

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