Step aside, Unicorn Frappucinos and Pink Drinks. Starbucks has a new favorite bevvy. According to the company, she’s blonde, bold, and breaks ALL the rules. And you know what that means, right coffee drinkers?
Oh, wait, you don’t?
The coffee giant debuted its “blonde” espresso on Jan. 9th in a brightly colored ad campaign with confusing messaging. It’s Starbucks’ first new espresso expression in over 40 years of business, and possibly its most regressive. But first, let’s address the stuff in the cup:
Contrary to the intense, battery-acid flavor of its signature espresso roast, blonde espresso is supposed to be gentler and more suitable for new coffee drinkers. The flavor is described as “subtly sweet” and “roasty” (whatever that means). But the coffee is actually just a light-roasted blend of South American and East African beans. What’s new here is it’s being rolled out in a curiously retrograde way, for the typically left-leaning company.
Where Starbucks ads have usually been exquisitely tuned to the political climate—or have even openly declared the company’s political inclinations—the blonde campaign took a different route.
The bright yellow landing page reads as follow:
“Who says espresso has to be intense?
We have for 43 years.
But we’re Starbucks Coffee Company.
So we did the exact opposite.”
For the most part, the campaign is anodyne, perhaps even trying a little too hard to be edgy. But then you get to what appears to be its main tagline: The one printed on store windows, menu boards, and coffee sleeves: Blonde breaks rules—in a racy font, superimposed on a lysol-colored background:
You get the idea. It’s fun, flirty, and so much subtly sweeter to swallow than the politically charged campaigns that Starbucks has been known for.
The ad campaign seems to be winking and nodding heavily at the regressive expression, “Blondes have more fun” — a phrase attributed to a series of Clairol commercials from the 1960s wherein young brunette women see their lives infinitely improved—through marriage proposals, improved tennis skills, etc.—after dying their hair yellow.
Social media weighed in shortly after the campaign was launched, and the meaning wasn’t lost on anyone:
Starbucks debuted its Blonde Roast drip coffee with much less fanfare in 2012, targeting people who wanted a lighter roast coffee. The press release described it using words like “mellow” and “approachable.”
“They told us they wanted a flavorful, lighter-bodied coffee that offers a milder taste and a gentle finish. Starbucks® Blonde Roast delivers,” said roaster Brad Anderson.
One commercial depicted a barista describing the company’s motivation behind blonde roast:
“Folks didn’t think our coffee was their flavor—it wasn’t their cup. You don’t like that dark roast, we’ve created a coffee for you… For me personally I love connecting with people, so blonde gives me another reason to connect with more customers.”
The ad ends with a screen that reads: “The coffee we’ve been missing, for the people we’ve been missing.”
And it does seem some people have been going missing at Starbucks: its customers. The company reported a drop in revenue and same-store sales today, and its shares have taken a 3% hit.
It seems Starbucks is done trying to empathetically connect with people, and would rather dare them to defy norms, and go blonde—even if only in an espresso cup. It’s a campaign that, because it borrows from the past, rings out perfectly for 2018, when America’s president has encouraged the country to abandon any sense of empathy or communal concern, and put only themselves (and people who fit his whitewashed vision of America) first, breaking rules along the way, because, why not?
With his inflammatory rhetoric and openly racist comments, Donald Trump has unleashed a wave of white supremacy that has been mostly dormant in the US for decades. His first year in office has seen the rise of an alt-right newly emboldened to hold events like the Charlottesville protests (paywall) and symposiums and rallies all around the country.
Has his rise emboldened companies to do the same, opening doors for them to be edgy in ways that aren’t good for America’s soul?
Starbucks is one of the food and beverage industry’s biggest contributors to Democratic candidates and causes, and CEO Howard Schultz openly supported Barack Obama in both his 2008 and 2012 presidential bids. He’s been rumored to be a candidate for president in 2020. Schultz has never been shy about his political views, and it’s shown in the way the company has historically advertised.
Indeed, Starbucks practically has an annual tradition of coming under fire for its holiday cups, and is regularly accused of waging a corporate war against Christianity, even after debuting a series of plain red cups in 2015, in an attempt to quell the controversy.
But it never seemed to mind the pushback: Its latest holiday cups were rolled out with a commercial showing a range of ages, races, and sexualities, and even appeared to feature a lesbian couple commiserating over a piping cup of coffee. It was predictably accused of pushing a “gay agenda” with the spot.
One of its most poignant ads came out right after Donald Trump’s first travel ban was first announced. It showed pairs of people putting their cups on a counter and turning them to show the names written on the side. They were culturally diverse, i.e. one would feature a traditional Arabic or Hispanic name next to a cup with a traditionally American name, like “Abdul” and “Sarah.”
The message was simple: We all belong here, together. It was an outright rejection of the America Trump was asking for by imposing the ban.
That’s what makes this current campaign so confusing. Blonde breaks rules, according to Starbucks. But maybe there are some overtures to America’s long history of sexism and racism—indirect and playful as they may be—that should stay out of its coffee shop windows.