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.