Thursday, September 08, 2005

A tale of two cities.

I was in New York yesterday, which was not as much fun as it sounds. My meeting was in a building near 3rd and 40th, which has got to be the most characterless neighbourhood in the city. I was early, wandering around in that dissociative state familiar to those of us who travel to places that are almost but not quite like home. Think ‘Lost in Translation’ and that weird way strange advertising and brands make you feel alienated.

Anyway. And then I saw it, a block west on the northwest corner: a Starbucks. It was like discovering a friendly embassy. Inside, the allegory held up quite nicely. As in any embassy, the clientele looked relieved, if not happy, to be there. There were orderly lineups. People shared obtuse customs and their own exotic language – as in, ‘tall’ means small, and ‘doppio’ means double, and ‘long’ means more water – while powerful functionaries dispensed favours and took money. And this made me think of France.

If Starbucks is a nation, surely France is a brand. All the coolest countries are brands. But France has always somehow been a troubled specimen. The world is ambivalent about them. The French remind me of Microsoft: Persistently annoying and obstreperous, yet we can’t imagine life without them. So we endure their Byzantine rules and imperial arrogance because the cheese is worth it.

Starbucks makes me wonder if it has to be that way. Do the greatest brands have to be arrogant and difficult in order to protect their identities? It seems to me that any brand that aspires to have its own culture could stand to learn a few things at the espresso bar. There’s more to this branding thing than just offering something people can’t get anywhere else. Apparently, you can be nice to people when they buy things from you, look as if you care about what you do and make the experience as pleasant as the product and they’ll still come back for more.

I feel fairly certain that if I could sit Chirac down with a Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino, I could talk some sense into him. Gates might be tougher. After all, Microsoft’s headquarters have been within smelling distance of Starbucks’ in Seattle for a long time, yet they still seem to prefer the taste of their own Kool-Aid.

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