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February 7, 2009

Teen Talk: Teenhood Today: Starbucks' language illusion

The language of the Starbucks Corp. has been a curiosity ever since the company's first coffeehouse's opening menu eschewed the typical "small, medium and large" drink sizes in favor of their exotic European counterparts, "tall, grande and venti." Starbucks coffeehouses offer a smorgasbord of hot and cold drinks; however, the names of these products are indecipherable to the monolingual American.

According to a Starbucks "translation guide" published by a Starbucks barista, the Americano drink is simply an espresso watered down until it is roughly the strength of a normal coffee; a Mocha Valencia is mocha (espresso, steamed milk, and chocolate) with orange syrup. The "Espresso Con Panna" is espresso with whipped cream.

The Starbucks menu is littered with mixtures of mangled Italian, vaguely European-sounding words, and other amalgams which aren't normally seen on American coffeehouse menus _ yet these exotic product names are not the result of a foreign company importing its products to the United States. The Starbucks Corp. was founded in Seattle, Wash., in 1971.

Nor are these product names related to any forthright attempt by the company to market its stores as Italian or European coffeehouses; Starbucks marketing campaigns in America have never centered on connecting the store to any European country.

What, then, is the purpose of the bizarre language of Starbucks? Why would an American-based company deliberately choose product names and sizes that baffle American consumers?

One would think that such rhetoric in the distinctly English-centered United States would sound the death knell for any company _ and yet, the Starbucks Corp. thrives. Is it possible, then, that there is some profound logic behind this?

Is it possible that despite the superficial difficulties that consumers have with the strange drink names of Starbucks, there is something in these faux-European idioms that appeals to the American mind-set?

There is a deeper purpose to the rhetoric of Starbucks, and it appeals to a human psychological tendency that transcends nationality. This is the tendency of human beings to use past experiences to dictate what they do in the present. Humans use episodic memory _ the type of memory that recalls one's perception of a certain event _ to help figure out what action should be taken. The memories of experiences that are most similar to the situation at hand are brought to the subconscious mind, and the human mentally compares what he or she did in those memories to the options that are available to him or her in the current situation. Most human beings will choose the available action that most closely corresponds to what they did in the past.

The relationship between past and present action is applicable to economic choices. Indeed, there is an entire field called "behavioral economics," which researches the connection between human behavioral patterns and consumer spending patterns. For every product a consumer purchases, he or she has an established "customary price point": a very narrow price range that is acceptable to pay for the product. This price point forms during the first few instances of the consumer purchasing that product; afterwards, he or she is not typically willing to pay much more for that product, and he or she will do so only if inflation or other circumstances have taken away his or her cheaper alternatives. The psychological establishment of a price point in a consumer's mind is similar to the behavioral pattern in young animals known as "imprinting"; once the consumer has selected a particular price range as that which is acceptable to pay for a product, much like a young animal imprinting upon a certain object as its mother, it is almost impossible to alter that consumer's perception.

This presents an apparent paradox. The Starbucks Corp. prices its drinks well above what most establishments charge for the same products; for example, a tall (12-ounce) Caffé Latte costs $2.55 at Starbucks, and the comparable small (12 ounce) Latte at Dunkin' Donuts _ Starbucks' chief American coffee chain rival ""_costs $2.05. This means that Starbucks charges roughly 24 percent more than its rival for an almost identical drink. Both of these chain coffeehouses are widely recognized and available in most parts of the United States; most consumers have a choice between these two chains and other coffeehouses for their daily brew. Customers who go into Starbucks willingly choose to pay more for coffee and other drinks; why?

This is the genius of Starbucks, for its language's true purpose is to convince consumers that they are not purchasing the same product that they could get at any other coffeehouse. They are buying something new, something they've never had before _ something for which they have no customary price point.

The purpose of the bizarre language used by Starbucks is to separate the "Starbucks experience" from the consumer's other experiences. With the use of rhetoric, Starbucks strives to make as many things in its stores as atypical as possible. I've already discussed the mixture of mangled Italian and customary "Starbucksisms" that make up its menu items, as well as the odd sizing system, which continually flabbergasts customers who are trying to order a drink. The workers who would be called "cashiers" or "counter people" in any other coffeehouse are called "baristas" in Starbucks. Every week a coffee with a particularly tongue-twisting name such as Costa Rica Bella Vista or Guatemala Casi Cielo is dubbed the "Featured Coffee" and is thrust into the promotion limelight at Starbucks stores. Everything that Starbucks does to individualize itself is part of its ultimate ploy: to separate the consumer from his or her memories of buying coffee in the past, leaving him or her without the defense of a customary price point.

Once a consumer's subconscious has been successfully coerced into not recognizing Starbucks as a mere coffeehouse, his or her wallet has been laid open for the taking, and the rest of Starbucks' road to profit is child's play. In theory, the Starbucks Corp. is free to charge the consumer whatever it likes for a cup of coffee; after all, he or she has no memories with which to compare it to see if he or she is getting a fair deal. Theory, of course, does not always translate to reality; the exorbitant prices of Starbucks are limited by the fact that its illusion economic can only stretch the human mind (and wallet) so far. No matter how Starbucks worked to separate the "Starbucks experience" from that of a typical drink purveyor, it seems unlikely that many consumers would pay, say, $100 for a cup of coffee, no matter the stark faux-Italian aura surrounding its multiple-syllable name; however, it is theoretically possible.

As demonstrated by my earlier price comparison of the Caffé Latte at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, the Starbucks Corp. makes off quite profitably while selling what are essentially the same drinks as other coffeehouses. Like wolves isolating a prey animal from its pack, the bizarre phrasing of the Starbucks menu serves to separate the unwitting consumer from the memories and price points that protect him or her from getting ripped off. This language deviation allows Starbucks to charge exorbitant amounts of money for its products, and what's more, to get away with doing so _ for the customer, unaware of things such as mental price points or his or her own psychological tendencies, is none the wiser. Once the barista closes in with a smile to take that $4.15 killing blow for a venti Iced White Chocolate Mocha, another consumer's wallet has been gutted by the magnificent psychological illusion cast by the Starbucks Corp.

Jessie Matus is a senior at Oneonta High School.