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By Chae Yeon Kim

Take a visit to Starbucks in Mark City, Shibuya. A long line of people waiting to get a seat in the already excessively crowded store is a common sight to see. Just a few seconds down the corridor are few other cafés where one too many seats are available for seating. Why is it that Starbucks, and only Starbucks is so popular? How did Starbucks become a worldwide sensation? What is Starbucks doing that others aren’t?

When you think about a café, you would most immediately think of a warm and cozy place with plush sofas where you can quietly listen to music and read books or even chat with a friend and stay for hours. The cozy and relaxing image you get about cafés today was first wildly spread and established by, believe it or not, Starbucks.

When the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, travelled to Italy, he realized that cafés were not only places where people just drop by to get their morning dose of caffeine, but a place where people held business meetings and talked to each other — a sort of mechanism that held the Italian society together. Inspired by this view, Schultz persuaded the leaders of the company to transform Starbucks into such a place where friends can meet up and stay. Here, he added luxurious sofas, dimmer lighting, and jazzy music to the background. The café became somewhere people can get a premium traditional cup of espresso drink and relax.

This is the main marketing strategy Starbucks is based on. Rationally thinking, a small cup of coffee should not and cannot cost 500yen (about $5 USD). Starbucks can get its customers to pay such amounts of money because it not only sells its “premium” espresso drink, but the café experience itself. The customers get the feel that they are able to purchase the warm relaxing and somewhat sophisticated experience of the café atmosphere as well as the simple cup of coffee.

The Starbucks experience. Photo by author.

The Starbucks experience. Photo by author.

The first Starbucks to ever open outside of North America was not in some random town in Europe or neighboring Mexico, but in the high-end area of Ginza, Tokyo– right behind the famous Matsuya Department Store in 1996. The company leaders seem to have speculated that the people who visit Ginza, Tokyo, the richest city in the world, are able to afford and are willing to pay for the modern coffee experience.

Likewise, when Starbucks expanded to different continents and cities, the leaders of Starbucks altered their marketing techniques according to the cultures of each location. For example, when Starbucks expanded to China, they found out that the peak time in China was not 7am to 10am like most other countries, but at 4pm to 6pm. Food preferences were also taken into consideration. For example, the holiday Yorkshire pudding was for the customers in UK, not New York.

A friend once said, “Japanese people have something for marron.” That was true.  The 2013 holiday season drink consisted of the Crushed Marron Pie Latte. And in the Sakura season of 2013 came the Sakura specials, consisting of Sakura flavored espresso drinks, cakes, cookies, and accessories such as mugs and tumblers– only in Starbucks Japan. Starbucks does a splendid job of tailoring the universally relaxing and warm coffee experience to the local needs of the people.

So the next time you see a long line of people trying to get a seat at Starbucks, instead of tut-tutting at them, remember that they are not only getting ‘overpriced’ coffee but the coffee experience, perfectly catered to their location and nationality.

Chae Yeon is a first-year PEAK student at the University of Tokyo. 

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