Ten years of Starbucks' travails perfectly encapsulate the 2010s

The corporate machinations of the coffee giant are a mirror for the decade's culture wars

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published December 15, 2019 2:00PM (EST)

Starbucks red holiday cup, and a vandalized Starbucks cafe. (Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/Salon)
Starbucks red holiday cup, and a vandalized Starbucks cafe. (Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/Salon)

Every large corporation gets large by bucking convention; then, once ubiquitous, it succumbs to convention. Microsoft pioneered the modern graphical operating system, mocking IBM in an era when that company was perceived as stodgy. But in the 21st century, it missed the importance of the smartphone, then morphed into an enterprise software giant as boring as IBM. In the same span, Apple went from iconoclastic design pioneer to a glorified credit card company that tried to spin the removal of a headphone jack as revolutionary. It pioneered the "slab of glass" look of smartphones, and has been riding that design wave for more than a decade with few fundamental design changes.

The tendency of large corporations to become dry and boring makes business sense, inasmuch as every huge corporation must be conservative by nature. Radical shifts in business strategy are not tolerated by shareholders, who demand even and predictable returns. Thus, the biggest corporations on Earth are generally doomed to a slow life of diminishing relevance before being overtaken.

Like Microsoft and Apple, Starbucks was "innovative" — a cringeworthy, though I suppose appropriate term here — inasmuch as they brought second-wave coffee into the mainstream, anticipating and commercializing coffee culture in North America. They normalized espresso drinks in the United States, such that nearly everyone has their own preference. A mere thirty years ago, one still might hear the pejorative "latte-liberal" bandied about, as if espresso drink consumption was a phenomenon confined to urbanites. These days, a suburbanite Republican in deep-red Tulsa — where there are over 30 Starbucks locations — is just as apt to order a half-caff no-foam soy latte.

Now that the third wave of coffee has percolated through the planet, not even the most sycophantic Forbes-toting MBA would call Starbucks an innovator in any regard. Like all multinational corporations, Starbucks is an immovable object, incapable of original thought, lest their analysts fear disrupting existing revenue streams. The coffee giant has 31,256 stores on six continents; it thrives off of familiarity, such that customers can order the same matcha frappuccino in Toronto or Billings.

That safe, reliable corporate quality makes Starbucks an excellent bellwether for cultural and political shifts. It's a big, slow-moving, multinational corporation, doomed to follow and emulate food and cultural trends, forever and ever amen (or at least until another corporation overtakes it). Hence, Starbucks' corporate travails are a reflection of the decade — its spirit, its zeitgeist, its trends.

2010-2019: The holiday cups and the culture wars

One of the defining traits of neoliberal capitalism is that it limits democratic participation in economic decisions. The primary ideological underpinning of neoliberalism is the notion that democracy happens vis-a-vis money; citizens vote with their dollars, and this is, to neoliberals, preferable to ballot-box democracy. When it comes to real "democracy" in the neoliberal regime, there isn't much. The rich, the financiers, and their associated elite cronies pull the strings of the economy and of society.

One of the cultural aftereffects of this economic system is that in the absence of actual democracy, protests and activism are subsumed into the private sector, and frequently become purely aesthetic. Our big political arguments these days often concern the optics of large corporations' marketing or advertising practices. The right and left both become engaged in this battle over consumer aesthetics, as though it reflected something more material, which it generally doesn't. 

The holiday cup at Starbucks has become a lightning rod for this sort of sophistry. It is ironic that the right-media apparatus has such a disdain for the academic humanities, given that every year, these outlets write the equivalent of thousands of English 101-level papers reading the aesthetic implications of the Starbucks holiday cup design.

2011: Cake pops and social media food culture

Though I had never seen a cake pop before they started selling them at Starbucks, they were popularized last decade by food blogger and baker Angie Dudley, also known as Bakerella. She showed off her cake pop recipe on Martha Stewart's TV show in 2008, a segment that went viral; Starbucks started selling them in 2011.

Cake pops are quaint, bite-size, seemingly quite a bit of kitchen effort for something so small. But their popularity mirrors other 2010s food trends. Social media — which, in the span of a decade, went from a textual domain of the young to a ubiquitous and primarily visual medium — seems to have had a concomitant effect on food and food culture. If the primary media we absorb and create is individually created and shared via images and videos, our society thus becomes more interested in food that is visually elaborate, appealing, even twee. (More on this later.) The emphasis is more on the look than the taste.

The cake pop is a great example of this trend: they taste awful — it is a saccharine agglomeration of cake crumbs and icing, after all — yet are extremely popular. Lukas, my neighborhood barista at the Starbucks on 82nd Avenue in southeast Portland, says that they're particularly popular with children whose parents wish to placate them.

2011-2013: Rise of matcha drinks and the end of American cultural hegemony

One of the most effective weapons in the arsenal of imperialism is culture. American movies, blue jeans and rock and roll spread across the planet in the twentieth century, and helped normalize our culture and the image in the minds of many nation-states' populaces, whom we would go on to more easily oppress and exploit.

A huge cultural shift has happened in the past half-decade, one which accelerated in the 2010s, in which the United States is importing more and more of its culture. We watch more movies with dubs or subtitles, a practice once confined to art school nerds. We are reading novels in translation, or semi-translated: the biggest sci-fi writer in the world is Liu Cixin; Dominican-American novelist Junot Díaz writes English-language novels with long, untranslated Spanish passages. Our blockbusters are increasingly funded by Chinese capital. And K-pop bands like BTS are, to Gen Z, what *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were to millennials.

The matcha drink is a visible example of Japanese food culture spreading across the U.S., and its ubiquity was helped by Starbucks. Only the Japanese Starbucks locations had matcha lattes in the beginning of the decade, but by the end, it was a staple in all American Starbucks, too. Some American Starbucks offered them as early as 2011, but within a few years, they were everywhere.

The trend spread beyond Starbucks. Here in Portland, a Matcha Latte is a standard order at our second- and third-wave coffee shops.

2013: Cultural capitalism and buying ideology

Consumer capitalism has shifted in the past decade, such that it no longer merely sells products, it sells charity accompanied by these products. (Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has summarized this idea in this video far better than I ever could.) Pretty much all multinational, consumer-facing corporations behave this way now. You can observe this by going to any corporate web site; Chipotle, for instance, loudly advertises their "values" on their homepage, noting that when you buy from Chipotle, you are not merely buying a meal, but also buying "vegetables grown in healthy soil, and pork from pigs allowed to freely root and roam outdoors or in deeply bedded barns."

Starbucks thoroughly immersed itself in this corporate culture. A huge portion of their branding is devoted to "social impact." The list of good things that supposedly happen is endless: they are leaders in "ethical sourcing," "sustainability," and "creating opportunities," whatever that means. You're not merely buying a coffee; you're buying an ethos.

I probably don't need to tell the Salon reader that corporations use charity as a way of convincing consumers that they don't actually need to be taxed to pay for social welfare — the types of things we need the welfare state for will magically happen through our purchases from them. Oscar Wilde was writing about this a hundred years ago. As he wrote, charities "try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.... [but] the proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible."

2014: The algorithmic boss

One of the most insidious management trends in the 2010s was the rise of machines as managers. Uber drivers are automatically fired by algorithm if they are too inefficient; Amazon, too, does something similar with its warehouse workers.

This previously happened at Starbucks, too, albeit in a different way: Starbucks gave over much of its scheduling of its baristas to algorithms in the 2010s. To the corporation, the scheduling software game worked like this: how can the computer maximize profits while minimizing employee pay? The answer was to give their employees lots of short shifts, often scheduled last-minute. It created a chaos of misery for its workers, as the New York Times documented then:

Newly off public assistance, [barista Jannette Navarro] was just a few credits shy of an associate degree in business and talked of getting a master's degree as some of her co-workers were. Her take-home pay rarely topped $400 to $500 every two weeks; since starting in November, she had set aside $900 toward a car — her next step toward stability and independence for herself and her 4-year-old son, Gavin.

But Ms. Navarro's fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had also turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock. She rarely learned her schedule more than three days before the start of a workweek, plunging her into urgent logistical puzzles over who would watch the boy. Months after starting the job she moved out of her aunt's home, in part because of mounting friction over the erratic schedule, which the aunt felt was also holding her family captive. Ms. Navarro's degree was on indefinite pause because her shifting hours left her unable to commit to classes. She needed to work all she could, sometimes counting on dimes from the tip jar to make the bus fare home. If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.

So much for "innovation." After widespread outrage over the Times article, the company promised changes to the scheduling software. It was a harbinger of what was to come later in the decade with companies like Uber and Amazon.

2017: The Unicorn Frappuccino and the Instagram food aesthetic

See also: cake pops, and the increasing popularity of "visual" food — that which you can share on an Instagram feed and salivate over its eye-popping colors — as Erin Keane, in Salon, opined in 2017:

All day yesterday I saw image upon image of Day-Glo lilac-colored middle school fantasy drinks parade by on my social media feeds. The photos, snapped before the first sip to capture the virginal shimmer of undisturbed, be-glittered whipped cream, came from all corners of my social network. The culture journalists did their due diligence first, of course, but even the doctors were treating themselves after a tough day. (Though not the throat specialist — what does she know that we don't?)

Most reviewers said precisely that about the unicorn frappuccino: it was a mess of sugar, not too different than a 7-11 Slurpee. "I went this morning, Instagrammed it, tasted the powder then spat it out. It's SO sweet and that fairy dust powder is foul. Le sigh," writer Erin Coulehan wrote on Twitter. But the Instagrammed aspect of these drinks, more than the drinking of it, seems to be the point.

2019: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's presidential race, and the CEO as ruler

File under "that happened comma 2010s": Billionaire ex-CEO Howard Schultz stepped into the 2020 presidential race, filing for a vanity run as an independent. His belief he would be a good president is understandable, I guess, given our current circumstances: Our society has so thoroughly confused wealth with expertise, celebrity with intelligence, that even the people like Schultz and Trump — who help perpetuate this illusion — have forgotten that it is an illusion.

In a dark way, the Starbucks CEO is perfectly equipped to run the kind of inverted totalitarian sham democracy that we live in — whose sole function these days seems to be to dismantle the welfare state and funnel public money to corporations. If you believe that the welfare state is solely the realm of corporate largesse, and the corporations in our lives have become pseudo-governments from the perspective of employees — which we protest in the same way we once protested governments — I guess you might believe Schultz would be a good president. But he certainly wasn't able to convince many of that before dropping out.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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