- Starbucks recently announced that all people would be allowed to use the bathrooms at the chain’s locations, even if they hadn’t made any purchases.
- The coffee giant built its empire by marketing itself as a middle-class status symbol.
- Americans want brands to deliver both elevated status and inclusivity, two values that — in Starbucks‘ case — are at odds with each other.
- With the radical open-door policy, any cultural cachet Starbucks had based on exclusivity is gone.
Starbucks’ new open-door policy reveals a shift in American middle-class values — and a transformation for the coffee giant.
The coffee chain recently announced that all people could visit and use the bathrooms at the chain’s locations, even if they hadn’t made any purchases. The new policy comes after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks when one had tried to use the bathroom without first making a purchase.
Starbucks has long been a cultural icon in the United States. For a period of time in the 1980s and 1990s, it was even a status symbol, signaling a certain cosmopolitan coffee knowledge when much of the country didn’t know how to pronounce “latté.”
While Starbucks’ reputation evolved from Euro chic to basic, it has continued to maintain a certain cultural cachet. Starbucks can charge more for coffee than McDonald’s because of its more upscale reputation and community-centric mission.
However, when two black men were arrested at a Starbucks, both the chain’s reputation and its perceived mission took a major blow.
Starbucks’ response speaks to the often-competing desires of the American middle class. The coffee chain is founded on the idea of being somewhat elite, where regulars know how to order and are introduced to the latest coffee trends. Most Americans can’t afford a BMW, but buying a cup of coffee at Starbuck similarly signals a certain level of taste and a willingness to spend a few extra dollars. Starbucks isn’t just another fast-food chain — it is something more.
However, for Starbucks to be something more, it needs to be both inviting and exclusive. Higher prices and social norms once allowed Starbucks to regulate who felt comfortable spending time at the chain. However, these practices…