Is Starbucks a spa or our third place? Is it Barack or Hillary?

As Starbucks tries to recapture its old focus, it is stepping back from the music business — from the content business, really — and that made me wonder what spot Starbucks should fit into in our lives.

Its choice of books and music and emphasis on them said much about its old aspirations: a lifestyle company, yes, but one with a worldview and a message: fixing the world, fixing your life, soothing your soul.

But that’s not what Starbucks is to me: It’s my third place, an office, my place for meetings, writing, reading … and drinking a simple cup of coffee, nothing in it and no room for anything, thank you. I’m busy when I’m there. I want it to be pleasant but practical.

Starbucks wanted to be — or was — Barack Obama. I want it to be Hillary Clinton. (And given my preference in candidates — take that as a disclosure — you shouldn’t see this as an insult.)

So what sort of books should Starbucks sell, if it sells any? It occurs to me that it should sell business books, at least in some locations, if so many of us look at it as an extension of our business lives. (Of course, I’ll have one humble suggestion come spring; take that as another disclosure.)

What sort of music should it sell — and, for that matter, play — if any? It’s not easy for Starbucks, as customers see different places in the same location. Look at the discussion about music at Some want to turn it down so they can make a phone call or talk or read; others want the music to be more democratic for customers or employees; some wonder what the hell music has to do with coffee. It’s as fractured as the Democratic Party.

By putting CIO/CTO Chris Bruzzo — who also headed MyStarbucksIdea — in charge of entertainment now, it seems that Starbucks realizes it’s not a publisher or producer but a distributor and promoter. That’s a very important question to answer for businesses today: deciding what you are and where you fit in, and the answers aren’t the same as they were a decade ago, pre-internet.

And regarding the internet, I’m delighted at Starbucks’ new AT&T wi-fi deal, giving customers with cards two free hours a day. That says to me it is emphasizing business use.

So I wonder what it would look like to have a business-district Starbucks that goes all the way, renting desks to us: place 2.5. I wonder how a neighborhood Starbucks could be more a part of the neighborhood, using its connectivity and localness to gather the events and restaurant recommendations of the locals. (If an airline can be a social publisher, why not Starbucks?) What if Starbucks in cool, late-night neighborhoods got liquor licenses and had wine and port tastings? Does that confuse the brand or would our ability to mold the stores and the brand give it more context? A few years ago, McDonald’s violated advertising rules when it started advertising different brand messages to different audiences: to moms, it was a fun place to take the little buggers, to late-night stoners it was the place to get your midnight munchies. But the stores themselves didn’t change.

And where’s my point and grand conclusion? You got me. I don’t have one. I find companies’ self-examination and reformation fascinating and I’d be very interested in your take.

  • Localness is exactly where it’s going Jeff! And a virtuous cycle of community that can go online-to-offline-to-online. Consider that Starbucks and AT&T are making each store a unique node in its network. Suddenly, user-generaed content can be hyper-local, relevant and have a place — a physical place — in the world. And it works precisely because of the elastic nature of the Starbucks Experience. There’s room for ALL the candidates!


  • John

    Give me a break. Starbucks sells coffee. I go there to get a very nice cup of Joe. These companies are all caught up in trying to be more than they are. If I want books, I go to a bookstore. If I want music, I go to iTunes. Regarding McDonald’s, I go there to get a cheap burger. Marketing gurus and bean counters are trying to get companies to think beyond what they are so they can make a few extra bucks when they should instead focus on delivering their core product. Be great at one thing! Read The Myth of Excellence.

  • Anatole

    With all due respect but I cannot help it…

    The Starbucks Hillary Clinton style would be a place where:

    Prices on coffee will stay the same low and affordable for 5 years, never mind the markets craziness or the store’s balances;

    But the amount of change you get from a twenty is different from day to day according to the latest mathematical whimsy of the owner;

    Will only serve black coffee if cornered and out of milk;

    The Old Fashioned Garbage Sink flavor is the day’ special;

    And finally, if you aren’t giving that $5 tip, we might not reopen tomorrow morning.

  • Hmm, Starbucks is a brand and a network.. and as McDonalds has found out it can localize (i.e selling beer in Germany which is culturally acceptable ) but to transfer localization to the local American context.. can Starbucks sell business books in business districts and academic books in university districts, creating a third space made up of real co-present (and like minded) people rather than the me-space (a place made up of private networks enabled by Starbucks through free WiFi)…. the word is too fluid and the network too open…maybe too difficult for a network thats centrally managed to apply.


  • Ben

    I can never get a seat at Starbucks. Not sure how that fits into the overarching metaphor, but it’s true.

  • Alex

    Starbucks is interesting in that the niche it seems to fit. I think of Starbucks not as third place, but an extension of second place. In essence, you even say this yourself, when you suggest that they should sell business books.

    I see Starbucks as filling two needs, the first of which is consistency in the form of a home-away-from-home. In a strange town, or an airport, Starbucks is consistent, safe, familiar. The personality is the corporate Starbucks personality. It’s soothing in its predictability. The second need that Starbucks fills is that of status. There is an upscale elegance to the Starbucks persona, like driving a Volvo or a Saab, wearing Cole-Haan shoes, and Coach purses. Inclusion can be purchased for the price of a cup of coffee. But the reality is, if you were going to buy a bag of whole-bean coffee to take as gift to someone who was really into coffee, you would not take Starbucks because its pedestrian. It would be like taking a six pack of Blue Moon to someone who was into microbrewed beer.

    The city in which I live is by no means “urban.” I live in an area where there are 8 coffee shops within a two mile stretch that has minimal parking. One is a Starbucks, three are part of a local chain, and of the remaining four shops, one is a new immigrant start-up business. Each has a distinct personality and loyal following, and there are distinctions among the three locations of the local chain, despite product and service being consistent. Where you go for coffee and to hang out has meaning within the community, albeit subtle and unarticulated. Friends who have moved away asked to be sent cups and bagged coffee from the local chain.

    My daughter has a watercolor of one of the local chain locations hanging in the living room of her apartment across the country; it has meaning in defining who she is. Would someone would hang a painting of a Starbucks location in their living room? I wonder.