Bryant Simon


On his book Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks

Cover Interview of January 17, 2010

The wide angle

Starbucks is not really all that special or unique.  Despite its claims of good deeds and better works, the company, at the end of the day, is typical—typical of how business increasingly works and consumers increasingly consume.

Companies no longer sell products, at least not principally; they sell experiences and even more promises.  That is what we pay for—we pay extra for things that makes us feel better and look better, things that communicate something about ourselves and meet our personal and collective desires.

For much of the first decade of this new century, Starbucks thrived by identifying and then marketing the broad desires of the American upper middle-class, David Brooks’ bobos and those who wanted to look like them.  Like most groups, Bobos bought things—again not for their physical qualities—but so that they could distinguish themselves from others; so that they could not just keep up with the Joneses but separate themselves from the Joneses.

Starbucks, then, sold lattes as emblems of education, sophistication, and discernment.  Its greatest business trick was to turn its drinks into symbols of taste and wealth, concern for the environment and the less fortunate.  Mostly, it made lattes into everyday forms of conspicuous consumption.  Who else had the money and good taste to waste $4 or $8 a day on coffee?

Turning coffee into an emblem of class standing and global concern translated into big business for Starbucks.  Over the first five years of this century, the company opened a new store somewhere around the world every five or six hours.  By 2007, it served over 45 million customers a week and generated $10 billion a year in revenues.

But Starbucks’ growth, and really the growth of promise making economy in general, was helped by another more far-reaching and troubling transformation in American life.  The Seattle latte peddler’s hold on many in the United States grew out the nearly wholesale replacement of nonmarket civic society by a rapacious consumer society.  Community has been usurped by buying, belonging with shopping.  Without neighborhoods or clubs or unions or political associations to push back against the marketers, brand-induced consumption spread, really oozed, into every aspect of daily life.

Hefty doses of buying, advertising, and marketing were not new to America in 1995 or 2005.  Neither was the branding of everything from fun-runs to urinal covers to rock concerts.  Nor was the commodification of consumers’ deepest anxieties, desires, and aspirations all that new. It wasn’t even that Americans suffered, in the words of business writer Lucas Conley, from “obsessive branding disorder.”

What is new—and what makes our world both more alienating and more susceptible to the seductions of buying—is the withering of nonmarket relationships and the public institutions that in the past had pushed back against the market and brands to challenge them for people’s allegiances and identities.

The pullback of community, the state, and other binding agents allowed brands like Starbucks to sell more goods and garner greater profits by reaching deeper into our lives and consciousness and claiming spaces that civic institutions, including government, occupied in the past.

But while Starbucks occasionally talked and acted like an NGO or a political party, it never existed for the larger good; it worked for Wall Street and for shareholders.  From the posters about health care for workers to the brown java jackets that promise to save the planet to the oversized drinks that invoke notions of extravagance, everything is there to get us to buy more.

By making claims to serve the larger good while lining their own pockets, the corporate players made it even harder for our already hampered civic institutions to reclaim legitimacy as vital actors in domestic reform and foreign policy.  This corporate takeover of state functions carried with it costs well beyond the Starbucks premium.

We might consume Starbucks, but as we do, Starbucks consumes part of us—part of our environment, our culture, and even our politics.