Q: When is a cup of coffee not a cup of coffee?

A: When you purchase it at Starbucks, of course.

You are not just ordering a triple mocha latte with an extra shot of espresso, caramel and whipped cream, you are helping the indigenous people of some remote region, who picked the delicious coffee beans by hand and sold according to the ideals of the fair trade market model. You are actively participating in international fair trade commerce, supporting an ideal that promotes fair wages, social and environmental standards. You may even be reducing the carbon footprint of some company somewhere in South or Central America.

You are experiencing through the purchase of an over priced cup of coffee what it means to be play a small in the solution.

When you purchase a coffee at the local diner though, you are merely putting a bad tasting, usually weak, over sweet, and under creamed caffeinated beverage into your body, most likely as a chaser to the bacon and cheese omelet you just stuffed into you mouth. However, it only cost you $.85 and it is bottomless. You get as many free refills as you want.

The obvious difference between the diner coffee and the Starbucks coffee is much more than what is in the cup. Starbucks has taken the commodity of coffee and transformed it by changing its perceived value. The commodity has been enhanced “the cup embodies a heightened ambience or sense of theatre and consumer will gladly pay”[1] for that.

The consumer is not only satiating the desire for caffeine, but they are satisfying what Sigmund Freud would describe as a subconscious need. By offering an experience that is perceived by the customer to be about much more than coffee Starbucks is able to sell millions of cups of coffee each year. In 2006, Starbucks sales reach close to US$ 8 billion dollars. [4]

Starbucks is certainly not the only food retailer doing this. The entire fast food industry is designed on the principal concept of experience marketing. Fast-food restaurants have managed to reach out to the consumer unconsciousness, mainly through children, to get us to want the experience they have to offer. These chains of restaurants have managed to homogenize the user experience no matter where it happens. A McDonalds in San Diego offers roughly, despite some regional or local items, the exact same experience the consumer has in Toledo, Ohio or Bangor, Maine.

Each chain is selling the roughly same items; hamburgers, milk shakes, French-fried potatoes, chicken in various forms, etc… However, each chain is able to distinguish themselves from each other through the branding and user experience.

Walt Disney was pioneer in the development and execution of the enhanced consumer experience to sell products and influence behavior. Disney created “theme parks” and defined customers as “guests” [1] and “immersed them in rides that not only entertained but involved them in an unfolding story.” Disney’s influence was also felt in the fast food industry. Many of the fast food giants such as McDonalds followed the example set by Disney in marketing to children through characters and themes that would build brand loyalty that via “nostalgia” of adults and the “the exploitation of children’s naïveté and trusting nature” would last for years and be passed down through generations. [3].

Consumerism Today

Consumerism, the equation of personal happiness with the acquisition of material items, plays an essential role in the development of the experience economy. This concept of Consumerism arose during the post World War I Calvin Coolidge era where mass production techniques and mass distribution methods were offering easy, affordable consumption to the masses.

The consumption playing field was be leveled and the disparity between the have and have-not class was shrinking. Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations and propaganda wrote in Manipulating Public Opinion “This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas.”

Bernays used the concepts and teachings of his uncle Sigmund Freud in pioneering the field of public relations. He applied Freud’s psychoanalytical theories on the unconscious mind to public relations campaigns and marketing of products. By reaching the unconscious mind of the consumer the savvy press agent or persuader could influence irrational behavior in the consumer. Bernays is famous for his efforts in popularizing public cigarette smoking by women, which was frowned upon by societal standards of the time. He was hired by a large tobacco company to capture the female market share, roughly 50% of consumer base, that wasn’t buying their products. Through the use of psychoanalytic theories he attacked the ideals that discouraged women from smoking. The rest is history. The American Heart Association estimates that today 20.7 million women (18.1 percent) are smokers.

Bernays understood that the way to sell and item or and idea is to speak to the heart, the emotional side of the individual. “You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.” The utilitarian approach to selling products was a thing of the past. It was essential for the post World War I manufacturing economy of the United States to push consumerism from a needs based ideal to a want based ideal.

Henry Ford was running affordable cars off the assembly lines; suits and dresses were being mass produced and sold in department stores; grocery stores were filling their shelves with processed foods, and America wanted to buy.

Today the challenge has never been greater for the marketing professional. Technology has brought consumer goods out of the department store and into the home. The professional marketer has to fight even harder to avoid the commoditization of their products. This is achieved by attaching an “emotional value” to a product. In a free market economy the commodity isn’t defined by large profit margins, most are sold for the lowest price. The advances in technology in the consumer world are a double edged sword; the Internet offers ease of access to markets for goods and services from all around the world, but this access is from behind the desk, or from within the house.

The Internet marketer relies on the brand recognition that a given product has established over time, but they still must provide “a distinctive personal and emotional experience” [2] for each user. The Apple Ipod is a great example of this. The Ipod was not the first MP3 music device, and iTunes was not the first online system for downloading content, in fact, it could be argued that they were fashionably late for the dance. Despite their late arrival, Apple quickly became the life of the party.

Apple through intelligent design, continuity across product lines, and ease of product integration has offered the consumer more than a music or video player; they have expanded the Ipod and iTunes from utility products. In addition to the enhanced experience Apple has created for the iPod through the community and socially based interface of iTunes, they have also offered a real and affordable solution to the entertainment industry and downloadable media. According to Steve Jobs, “iTunes sales were really up this year. We doubled the number of songs we sold in 2006. We are selling over 5 million songs a day… 58 songs every second.”

Apple has enhanced the purchasing and playing of music an enhanced experience similar to ordering the double mocha cappuccino at an overpriced, but really cool, coffee shop. Not only are we, the consumer downloading legally and avoiding the stigma and possible fines associated with using torrents or other illegal file sharing methods, but we also get to enjoy these videos and MP3 files on sexy little devices, that look great as an accessory.

Apple is not alone as a technology company that is employing the concepts of enhanced user experience to sell their wares. Companies such as Sony and Microsoft are taking the concept of the stand-alone video game console system and networking it via the Internet to create online interactive gaming communities. Microsoft has launched the XBOX Live system that allows subscribers to login and play games online, interact with other users, build communities, and participate in other exclusive content.

What was once a single player one on one medium has evolved through technology into an interactive community, where membership is sold through subscription, but the passport or means of connecting is the console and the ROM disc. The hardware has moved from the message to the means. Gamers once purchased a console and played games. Today they are purchasing access to a community, access to technologies and entertainment and the console is almost secondary.

It seems that as long as the producers of goods and services can ensure that their products speak to the irrational, unconscious and emotional core of the consumer we will continue to be sold things we do not need, and did not know we wanted.


1. B.J. Pine, and J.H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy. (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 1-26

2. Janelle Barlow, and Dianna Maul, Emotional Value: Creating Strong Bonds with Your Customers. (Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2000)

3. E. Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. (Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 2001).
4. Workman, Daniel, Suite 101.com, “Starbucks Global Sales American Coffee Around the World,” Aug 29, 2006. http://internationaltrade.suite101.com/article.cfm/starbucks_global_sales

This essay is from a book being produced as a collaborative exercise and assignment from the class Communications, Media and Society in the Interactive Communications Masters program at Quinnipiac University.


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