When Brands Get It Right, Starbucks China

When Brands Get it Right, Starbucks

Too often brands get slammed for being a little too good at what they do.  They’re too recognisable, too prolific or too generic trying to appeal to everyone.  Now I love small and independent just as much as the next designer, and would love to see a world filled with happy independent business owners embracing that unique design we as designers have magically conjured up just for them.  In reality though the big brands are the ones that are filling our High Streets to the point that our cities are starting to look like brands themselves.  Eventually you won’t need to know what city your in, and we can rename them all London 1, London 2 and so on.

Dare I say, that I’m actually spending quite a fair bit of time in one of the worlds biggest coffee chains, and actually drafting my little fingers off in one now.  Yes, Starbucks.  In the heart of Shenzhen, it’s not only this one, but generally across the board I’m finding the experience a step above the usual and I’m enjoying it.  Now I know that I’m far from home and the western style coffee options are either poor imitations at the same price or non existent, but I feel that Starbucks China is hitting higher than its western counterparts.  This is in spite of the fact that the prices are exactly the same as they are in London, but the counters still have a queue of punters with a fistful of yuan.  So why?

Interior Signage, Linhua west, Shenzhen
Interior Signage, Linhua west, Shenzhen
A quiet morning down my local cafe
A quiet morning down my local cafe

To start, the mornings are quiet which is incredibly nice.  Especially after I’ve been for a run and I’m in need of my morning brew and 5 minutes to myself.  I’m sure not so good for the stores, as they’re left scratching their heads as to why the early morning bird in China isn’t getting their worm.  So, good for me only so far.  I’m also finding their spaces well designed, both in the layout of their seating and the choice of interior treatments.  The designs have a masculine air (which The Magpie Rooms loves) about them but they still feel modern, fresh and of it’s location.  With grey brick cladding, exposed steel work and a modern take on Chinese screens dividing some of the spaces up.  The chairs and tables are both practical and comfortable and at least my local one has great artwork.  Beautiful large photography of the coffee process with the occasional witty illustration, which seems to have replaced those illustrated coffee bag logos they fancied previously, although I do see a few of those still.

When Brands Get it Right 2
Photography of the coffee process
Dividing screens with a local feel
Dividing screens with a local feel

Another point is their menu.  Although I rarely stray from black americano with no extras myself in the summer months, and a good old fashioned latte when it’s a little colder, the menu is littered with local specialties like the green tea iced latte, red bean cheesecake and very in keeping with the season of mid autumn festival just around the corner, their own range of moon cakes.  Of which I recommend the traditional one.  Helen Wang for Forbes business notes that this is where Starbucks are really winning.  By not taking the Chinese tea drinking culture head on, but presenting the brand as an aspirational alternative.  Providing that exceptional experience and making being apart of the Starbucks story seem cool and trendy.  Thus also setting the prices at the aspirational level.

Local treats like Red Bean and Green Tea Cheesecake
Local treats like Red Bean and Green Tea Cheesecake

My initial impression was that I was just suffering from being stuck on the other side of the world and feeling that it was the only space in the city that I could get a break from the heat and humidity that this part of China swelters through and that it wasn’t A. My tiny little room that like a hermit crab, I feel I’ve already outgrown, and nobody has 3D printed me another one, or B. Work.  So I decided to look a little deeper and discovered an interesting article for 2 new concept stores they’ve recently opened in Beijing with more of an idea of being a bit different and more integrated into the communities that they serve.  The first offering a ‘coffee tribute’ store in the Kerry Centre and the later a chic 24 hour venue with live music on the weekends.  I’m hoping they play that Hawaiian album I got back in 2005’ish from them constantly.  I’m a sucker sonically for anything Hawaiian.  So it looks like the Chinese market is being taken very seriously indeed with John Culver stating  “These new stores reflect our commitment to consistently elevate the Starbucks Experience while achieving the balance between representing our 42-year coffee heritage and China’s modern lifestyle.”  Let’s hope that this way of thinking about the brand continues.

Workers in the new Starbucks, Beijing. Images courtesy of Starbucks News
Workers in the new Starbucks, Beijing. Images courtesy of Starbucks News
New 24 hour store in Taikoo Li Sanlitun. Image courtesy of Starbucks News
New 24 hour store in Taikoo Li Sanlitun. Image courtesy of Starbucks News

One thing that I would suggest is taking all the doors ability to automatically stay open away, and issue each store with good old fashioned door jams if they need to wedge them open.  I can’t imagine the amount of energy and air conditioning going to waste with each local traversing in and out kindly propping it open for their, or the following persons convenience.  Especially when, like the local one next to me, it’s used as a thoroughfare into the mall by people that aren’t customers to the store.  Maybe also empower your staff to move the sleepers on quicker.  Not the nicest experience to sit at a table with a sleeping adult lying across it.  Did I say adult, that should be plural.  Adults.

Apart from a few niggles the Chinese iteration of the brand has come along way since opening its first store in 1999 in Beijing, with 1,700 stores in 90 cities.  I genuinely think that Starbucks China is onto a winner here and that largely it’s proving to be positive.  Capitalism isn’t going anywhere soon, but I do believe that it can be done in a thoughtful and imaginative way.  It may not be the community capitalism that we’re starting to see being embraced in new start-ups but people need coffee and it’s a capitalism that just might fit in to Chinese communities a little smoother.  You never know, that newly designed independent coffee shop that lands in your neighbourhood just might be a re-branded thoughtful little addition to one of the worlds leaders in coffee branding.

 

Further Reading:

https://www.starbucks.com.cn/en/about/inchina

http://www.forbes.com/sites/helenwang/2012/08/10/five-things-starbucks-did-to-get-china-right/

http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/26/news/companies/starbucks-china-sales-surge/index.html

All images and illustrations belong to Adam Harper unless otherwise stated.

Made in China (Da Fen Painting Village)

So, where does the bulk of the worlds reproduction art come from?

Da Fen, the painting village just outside of Shenzhen is what I had read about.  It’s actually smack bang in Shenzhen, Chinas 4th largest city just next to Hong Kong in Guangdong province.  Getting to it was no harder than jumping on the Northern Line from South London up to Hampstead Heath on the weekend.  Now when I think of a village, Hampsteads leafy green surrounds is usually what I picture.  Da Fen is more of a machine churning out replica paintings of some of the worlds most famous canvases.  Although like most villages it does have a lot going for it and its most charming parts were to be found in the unexpected.

 

Located a 20 minute metro ride on line 3 (which is the blue one) from central Shenzhen you alight at Da Fen itself.  The village is located almost underneath the rail overpass that had just brought us there.  If you aim for the Walmart, it’s just past it on your left.  The irony of the worlds largest reproduction art market being right next to, what I can only describe as one of the largest Walmarts I’ve ever been in myself, was not lost on me.

One of the more interesting galleries in the laneways.
One of the more interesting galleries in the laneways.

When you enter, there are 3 main areas to focus on.  On your left along the road in front of you is a large hall that is mostly undercover that runs the length of the site.  On the right is a series of avenues and roads that are great for exploring like the souks in Marrakesh and at the very back on the left just after the hall is the gallery.  The gallery is worth a quick look although nothing really grabbed my attention and I found it quite distracting, as the place was full of children all running around behind the barriers bouncing off of the walls and very nearly the art itself.  It could have been the creche but I’m certain it was the gallery we were in.  With Shenzhens tropical climate in mind and a cheeky downpour when you least expect it, I found the best way to navigate was to explore the building on the left first and then navigate the laneways in between when you had the weather on your side.

Paper Art

Now Da Fen is famous for its reproduction paintings and is rumoured to supply up to 60% of the wests art used in interior design projects where scale is needed, like hotels and restaurant design.  One thing that I discovered and absolutely fell in love with was Chinese needle painting with pieces taking up to 4 months to complete in excruciating detail.  I had already found some smaller examples at the nunnery gift shop at Diamond Hill in Hong Kong but these pieces were canvas size, and the detail was as present as ever.  To be able to see an artist creating one was exciting.  Known locally as Suzhou after the area the skill was developed in, in the Jiangsu province, practitioners use colourful silk threads with fine point needles and skill to create amazing paintings in silk on cotton or satin canvases.  The technique I was informed, is one of Chinas traditional cultural practices and dates back some 2000 years, the embroidery is known locally and abroad as Pearl of the Orient.

One of the many talented embroidery artists
Close up of the hand embroidery detail.
Close up of the hand embroidery detail.

Once we had finished looking through the main building we wandered through the laneways that made up the rest of the site.  There’s quite a bit to wander through, so the best way was to enjoy getting lost and making discoveries as we went along.  You could do this with a strategic plan but not all the vendors are as inspiring as some, and the lots get a little too similar with wall after wall of ‘art for arts sake’ style pieces boring into your eyeballs as they roll back into your head a little too often.  A few different things stood out though, with some well framed paper art, Hermes inspired framed silk scarves and a few of the buildings themselves breaking away from the tin shed set up that was the village norm.

Wall detail of a gallery.
Wall detail of a gallery.
Gabion filled with broken Chinese pottery.
Gabion filled with broken Chinese pottery.

The real amazing thing about Da Fen though is of course the reproduction art that is churned out at an impressive rate.  Row after row of classical European pieces being painted before your eyes with usually no more than a photograph in the artists hand guiding them as to what the piece should actually look like.  Never having seen the original themselves the outcome is surprising good.  One of my favourite to watch was a lady creating Van Gogh replicas.  I didn’t catch her name, so I’ll call her Van Doe.  There she was humming along to the radio and knocking out Starry Night, one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous pieces.  In fact within her part of the village was most of the works that you’d expect to see in the museum of his name in Amsterdam.  There was something quite ironic staring at a self portrait of his, painted by a 30 something year old woman in uptown Shenzhen.

Anonymous artist working on a Van Gogh reproduction
Anonymous artist working on a Van Gogh reproduction
Van Gogh self portrait by someone else
Van Gogh self portrait by someone else

Along the way there were certain paintings that obviously proved very popular with the western market, Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David being one of them.  I saw this worked up in embroidery which was incredible.  There he was mounted on his steed Marengo, crossing the Saint Bernard Pass in his finest silk, um, stitched in his finest silk.  Both the good and the bad were represented.  Mona Lisa done in nuts and bolts and all the Turners you could turn your thoughts too.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

Amongst all the talent toiling away creating these pieces though, it’s hard not to feel the absurdity of it all.  Artists clearly talented enough to do their own masterpieces but stuck in a system that doesn’t value what they create unless it has a foreign dollar, pound or euro attached to it.  Like so many things I’m discovering in China the aim is to replicate and not originate, and boy do they do a good job.  This also brings up questions about intellectual-property rights.  When I asked further about this, I was informed that the official policy is that the works are of artists who have been dead for more than 70 years and therefore out of copyright.  One article that I did find, that was an interesting read was written by Mary Ann O’Donnell titled ‘When is a Copy not a Copy’.  In the piece she talks about the essay by Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and discusses the work The Benjamin Project, by Adebahr and Empfangshalle.  O’Donnell also talks about her own exploration of the idea proposed by Benjamin.  In short, the exploration of the concept of authenticity in the application of reproduction.  Where the essay is addressing the reproduction by mechanical means, all 3 artists are interested in seeing how this idea translates when the reproduction is done by hand.  O’Donnell’s thoughts on the fact that calligraphy is taught by copying continually until your work is as good as the greats is a welcome argument to the copy conversation.  In the west, we are also taught our alphabet by tracing and then copying the source material.  You often see art students sitting quietly in galleries copying the greats trying to get the basics correct.  I guess the game changes when you’re expecting to be paid for that said work though rather than just using it as a great teaching tool.

So next time you’re relaxing in that fancy hotel on holiday, be sure to flip the painting over, and don’t be surprised when it says, like most of your toys growing up.  ‘Made in China’.

Unknown artists working on reproductions
Unknown artists working on reproductions
Artist work station
Artist work station

Related Articles:

http://www.spiegel.de/international/china-s-art-factories-van-gogh-from-the-sweatshop-a-433134.html

http://shenzhennoted.com/2011/12/27/when-is-a-copy-not-a-copy/#more-3684

http://www.gewebe.com.br/pdf/critical.pdf

All images and illustrations belong to Adam Harper unless otherwise stated.

Let The Beast Take Flight

let the beast take flight

The warmest of welcomes,

And thank you for taking the time to have a look at The Magpie Rooms, our site for all things design, architecture, art, and the thoughtfully random (magpie musings).  I hope that you stay awhile and that each visit leaves you with something to either think about or engages you enough to help further this lovely discussion that is design.

My name is Adam and I’m an interior architecture graduate that’s been out of uni for a year now after going back to study design after I hit my early 30’s.  Going back to study as a “mature student”, has had its joys and its pitfalls.  Exactly why I want to have a space where I can engage and enjoy with my fellow designers and design lovers, their stories, and what makes a great designer exactly that, great!

I’ve already crossed paths with a designer whose heart is as black as their designs, cluelessly looked into product design, (I’m still searching) and upped sticks and gone to see what there is to see in the great land that is China.  All under the moniker of “getting some experience”.

I look at all those job adverts that have an abundance of senior and intermediate roles advertised but nothing on the junior/graduate level and wonder how I’m going to get that 5 years experience that they so generously ask for.  Short of hanging in there like that beloved cat in a tree that everyone loves to look at, but not reach up and give a hand to, this blog will help all of us who feel that our claws are starting to give way, a place to cling in there that little bit longer.

70's Hang in there Kitty
70’s Hang in there Kitty

I’ve found one of the joys of having a healthy sense of adventure and finding myself on the other side of the world to not only my friends and family but anyone who speaks english, (my 10 Chinese words are slowly getting there) is that it’s allowed me the time to keep a journal of my travels and experience whilst I’m out here.  Something that I’d love to share with who ever will listen and for those of you who I pretty much just gabble at (you know who you are).

So please grab an ice cold coffee and stay awhile.  It’ll be great to hear what you have to think about anything that I’ve opened up for discussion, fallen in love with or have in the pipelines for you to possibly grab for yourself.

I leave you with this thought I absolutely loved from Lauren Lanker (great Marvel name) from thinking closet.com

‘We are more creative as a collective than the most creative in the collective’.

Adam

All images and illustrations belong to Adam Harper unless otherwise stated.