With 24,000 locations across the world, Starbucks has become an everyday stop for millions.
But that ubiquity could now be its problem.
“Starbucks is now competing with chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s,” Business Insider proclaimed this week. “It has gotten, in a sense, too basic.”
“Basic,” according to Urban Dictionary, is a pejorative term used to describe anything “involving obscenely obvious behavior, dress, action.” Other examples of brands deemed basic: Lululemon, Michael Kors and Ugg Australia.
So what’s an overexposed company to do?
Starbucks in recent years has begun looking for ways to restore its luster. In December 2014, it opened a Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle, where $10 cold brews are the norm. The high-end concept is soon to expand to New York and Shanghai, with nearly a dozen other locations in the works, according to Business Insider:
“The premium coffee experience of the Roasteries is intended to have the trickle-down effect. The chain plans to open roughly 500 Reserve stores, which offers premium Roastery beverages and artisanal Princi food, and 1,500 stores with Reserve bars, which will serve drinks made in a wider variety of styles such as pour-over and siphoning.”
It’s all part of an effort, analysts say, to reinvent itself as a luxury brand.
But can a brand that’s gone mainstream turn high-end again? It’s a quandary that brands like Apple, Michael Kors and Coach have also faced in recent years, as they look to balance widespread popularity with upscale cache.
“I’ll just say this: It’s much harder to go up-market than it is to do the opposite,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based market research firm. “What Starbucks has to do at a higher level is to be personal, like when you go to Hermes and the salesperson knows your name, or when you buy a Tesla and you’re in a high-street showroom.”
When it was founded in 1971, Starbucks was a premium brand, offering a higher-priced but also a better-quality cup of coffee than most Americans were used to. In the decades since, Americans have taken to it in droves, making the Seattle-based brand a commonplace staple, as ubiquitous as McDonald’s or Wal-Mart.
“They’ve set the bar high, and now they have to keep moving to an even higher level,” Pedraza said.
It’s a phenomenon Pam Danziger calls “lux-flation”: Our ideas of what constitutes a premium product or experience are always evolving.
“A brand like Starbucks starts at the top, and as it expands, it becomes the new normal,” said Danziger, author of “Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury.” “Now it’s got to create that mystique once again.”
Need another example? Just look to Apple, Danziger says. A decade or two ago, the company’s iMacs and MacBooks were seen as coveted novelty items. Today, just about everybody has at least one Apple device, which, she says, is why the company is reinventing its retail locations with free Wi-Fi, ficus trees and weekend concerts.
“They’re putting the human touch back into the equation,” Danziger said. “That’s one way to regain that luxury edge.”
It’s not always an easy proposition, Pedraza says. Coach has tried for years to win back an air of exclusivity to no avail, as have Michael Kors and Kate Spade.
But, he says, there have been some successes: In the early ’90s, Gucci was almost done for. The Italian fashion company was in financial despair and its creative director was quoted as saying “no one would dream of wearing Gucci.” Then Tom Ford took over and revived the brand, boosting sales and restoring the company to its previous glory.
“There are examples, but it takes a lot of money and a lot of paring back,” Pedraza said. “And frankly, not every company has the courage to do that. Everything is so grow, grow, grow in today’s world. And before you know it, you have a mainstream brand that isn’t special anymore.”