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How Starbucks adapts to local tastes when going abroad

The legacy of Starbucks as a global brand will be one of localisation.
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When it launches in a new country the company sets about researching culture, history and local tastes, before partnering with local coffee companies and building stores which serve the needs of locals without comprising the signature brand of the Seattle-founded coffee store. Forever suave, up-market and professional.

Starbucks’s localisation strategy has fused local products with innovative store design, providing a lesson to all companies entering tough foreign markets, like China. 

Japan

Starbucks has 18 design centres around the world. Each one works to understand what is considered normal, design-speaking, in a country.

Japanese building design is idiosyncratic: low roofs, traditional and often with allusions to its national religion, Shintoism. To recreate this feel, Starbucks has partnered with local designers to identify the spirit of a city. Fukuoka, in Kyushu, has a Starbucks with 2000 interlocking wood blocks, to give the impression of a forest to fit with the spirit of Shintoism: honouring nature. 

Another café in Meguro features local craft stores, as well as being designed in the style of a more traditional tea house.

Japan also has a selection of localised drinks and food. It introduced green tea ‘matcha’ (ground tea leaves) frappucinos and cookie crumble with white pudding, possibly because Asian consumers are accustomed to beverages with solids mixed in

Initially, Starbucks launched with Americans foods – which to Japanese tastes were oversized and too sweet. They’ve since began using local breads for downsized sandwiches, and reduced sweetness.

China

There are two considerations to be made about the Chinese market. 

The first is that the Chinese, due to successive food scandals, are more trusting of foreign food & drinks brands. This means ‘localising,’ by branding itself within China as a Chinese drinks brand, would’ve potentially harmed Starbucks growth in the country. 

Second, China’s position as an emerging economy has created a aspirational class (similar to the one that existed in Europe around the turn of the 19th century). The Chinese bourgeoise seek out consumables of status – which works in Starbucks’s favour as an aspiration brand. So Starbucks bumped coffee prices up to around £4 a cup, compared to around £2.30 in the UK. 

These considerations haven’t prevented them from adopting innovative store design in China.  For instance, in one of China’s oldest cities Xi’an, they hired famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to design the many-tiled, geometric exterior design for the city’s Starbucks.

However, their time China hasn’t been without tribulations. First of all, the country’s American café culture was all wrong for the Chinese, who would rarely go to a café alone. Market research showed that they would prefer to go in groups of up to 10 people, and this would strain western coffee stores built to accommodate single drinkers and two-person groups. Chinese stores were adapted so they could accommodate these larger groups of people.

There was also the time Starbucks launched a store within the Forbidden City, which for 400 years remained ‘forbidden,’ and only recently opened up to tourists. To be fair, Starbucks was invited there by curators at the city to open up ways the now-museum could earn money – but it didn’t sit well with Beijingren who possibly felt it rang a little too much like capitalist imperialism.

It’s akin to someone building a Starbucks in Buckingham Palace, after we had lost our monarchy.

The lesson is: be aware of and respect culture and cultural sentiments.


Saudi Arabia

When Starbucks launched in the Middle East it was met with immediate friction.

Because of the decency laws concerning women, the topless mermaid insignia was seen as pornographic – they changed the iconic mermaid instead into a crown on waves.

Although this wasn’t technically a design choice, it mirrors its experience in the Forbidden City in China: indicating the importance of calculating accurately cultural demands. In Saudi Arabia, Starbucks controversially segregated its stores into male and ‘family’ sections for women.

France (& Europe)

Unlike the Chinese, who see Starbucks as an aspirational brand, the French initially found Starbucks overpriced but of lower quality, compared to their own café culture. 

In fact, it was sort-of the inverse of what they look for on the continent. Europeans, famously derisive of American excess, take-away culture and overfamilarity (for example, giving baristas nametags was thought to be insincere and overtly American). They left Starbucks well alone, and its European stores were underperforming.

Perhaps the crucible of Europe, an early challenge for Starbucks, strengthened its conviction in the importance of localisation. In France, it introduced the ‘Vienesse’ coffee (essentially, coffee or hot chocolate with cream) as well as a food line more suited to continental, as opposed to British or American, tastes: red fruit cake, brioche and foie gras sandwiches. 

In Britain, Starbucks has interpreted our tastes and added scones and bacon butties to the menu. 

Starbucks has also refocused its energy on mirroring local styles and honouring European history. In Amsterdam, it built stores that supported to local culture scenes, for instance building a stage for poetry in a converted bank vault at Rembrandtplein. (Apple have attempted something similar in London, Paris and Berlin at least: occupying a Victorian buildings as well as the Louvre).

Finally, Starbucks franchises out an increasing proportion of its stores in the UK, emulating the independent coffee stores which are appreciated in the Old World. Just over 60 per cent of Starbucks stores in the UK are franchises, compared to 41 per cent in the US.

The strength of the Starbucks brand abroad comes down to a number of factors, and localisation is key to that, especially in breaking into the East Asian market where many other foreign brands fail, like Home Depot and Google, to local competitors.

Their innovation by design is admirable: it shows there’s more to localisation than scouring data sheets and adding green tea flavouring to beverages. Starbucks shows a keen sense of sympathy heritage and culture (for the most part), and fans abroad have spoken with their wallets.

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