Monday, October 23, 2006

Premium-Blend Culture

There is a fascinating New York Times article being widely circulated on "The Starbucks Aesthetic." It is not about the coffee or the store, but the music, movies, and now books that the chain has taken a big role in marketing. In my seminar on "Class Culture," we look at the words and phrases that sum up the style of social class. So I was interested in exactly how they pick which art to promote, and what words they use to describe their choices.

So what art does Starbucks sell? Ray Charles' duet album Genius Loves Company sold 800,000 at Starbucks alone. Frank Sinatra's The Wee Small Hours was big. Just now they are pushing Meryl Streep reading The Velveteen Rabbit, Mitch Ablom's book For One More Day, and the movie "Akeelah and the Bee." And who do they sell to? Starbucks' core customers are educated forty-somethings making in the high five figures.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz describes the "halo effect" that Starbucks gives to the art it promotes, which in turn generates a halo in customers' minds about Starbucks. His terms for their artistic choices: “quality, good will, trust, intelligence.”

Nikkole Denson, who runs Starbucks' entertainment division, said she chose "Akeelah and the Bee" and Ablom's book because they were “all about community and inspiration,” "socially relevant,” and “almost an education without being preachy” -- “not racy or dark, but thought-provoking.” Timothy Jones chooses the music Starbucks sells, such as Charles, Sinatra, and newer artists such as Madeleine Peyroux because they have “a believable sound that isn’t too harsh.”

The best clue that the Starbucks' aesthetic is bobo or knowledge class comes from Mr. Jones' description of where Starbucks itself looks for cultural validation: “We do our best with a new artist when there’s sort of an NPR [National Public Radio] buzz going on around him, the stars-in-the-making.”

Starbucks has even speculated about making its wireless connection the basis of a new network or channel. Here, though, I think their current business plan creates a bottleneck that they might fix. Starbucks' wifi is not free, but is part of a telephone company package. Most independent coffee houses (like the one in which I am writing this) offer free wifi to outcompete Starbucks. If the Big Green Machine wants to become a total edutainment platform for the knowledge class, they will have to offer their instructions as freely as NPR does.

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