Virtual tourism. That is what Starbucks is selling in this ad from last week's New York Times. Really the selling of virtual tourism is quite common in the developed world, and has been for a long time. Beginning really in the 1920s, retailers regularly offered customers easily consumed cardboard cuts outs of Paris, Venice, and Tahiti. But what they were really selling, and what Starbucks continues to sell, is a combination of emulation and safety.
Among higher end creative class types, travel or discovery -- themes clearly hinted at this add -- translates into cultural capital. Knowing something or going away can earn you the respect, admiration, and the dinner party envy of friends and associates. The farther you go, at least in higher education and higher earning circles, the more capital you get. Think about the esteem and admiration someone earns at a get-together in a New York City loft apartment for venturing to Laos or Chile. You get points, too, for discovering a new Burmese or Brazilian restaurant. Sensing this dynamic, Starbucks offers a watered-down version of this transaction, taking its less adventurous patrons away from the glass towers and enclosed malls of the developed world. The coffee company promises to escort customers on voyages to the most rural, underdeveloped, and authentic spots on earth, places with lots of vicarious cultural capital in bobo and creative class social networks. Starbucks (and often NPR and World Foods and lots of others), then, creates what we might see as everyday package tours for those on breaks between their own overseas trips, and smooth sailing for the less adventurous, those who want discovery but want it close by, clean, and not too far outside the mainstream.
Coffee anchors the Starbucks discovery experience. “Look at the world through the eyes of Starbucks coffee,” the company Web site suggests. “Geography is flavor,” according to another of the firm’s favorite taglines. With each cup—even if it is loaded with milk and sugar—Starbucks promises to take its customers on journeys to distant, exotic lands. For a time, Starbucks even issued coffee passports. With every bag of single-origin beans purchased, you got a stamp, certifying that you had been to Ethiopia, then to Columbia, and then to East Timor. Of course, you didn’t need a visa or vaccines or to take your shoes off at airport security to go to these places, and that is a big part of the appeal. You get to sip your OWN adventure -- once again, you get what you want from a brand and you get to hold onto your individualism at the same time. That's the promise in this ad.