“Starbucks Plays to Local Chinese Tastes” screams a Wall Street Journal headline (November 27, 2012) on the first page of its Business & Finance section. This makes total sense. To be a loved brand you need to have intimate knowledge of your target consumers and surprise them with your responsiveness. This is precisely what Starbucks is trying to do in China, even as it struggles to establish itself in India, trailing far behind the original estimate of store openings, which has recently been revised downwards to roughly half of what had been originally announced.
Unlike the US consumer of Starbucks who primarily grab a coffee and perhaps a sandwich on the go, the Chinese market sees Starbucks as a venue to sit, to relax, to meet, and to discuss business. This means that the kiosk-sized format popular in the US does not work well in China. In China, larger and more spacious stores with comfortable seating, extending to couches, becomes a key requirement. Starbucks is currently adding stores that are as big as 3,800 square feet to adapt to the demands of Chinese consumers.
It’s not just the space that’s at issue but the products themselves. China is a nation of tea drinkers having given this beverage to the world. Thus coffee while growing as a beverage, only goes that far. To adapt its portfolio, Starbucks has launched a R&D center in China, a center which has been responsible for launching menu items like the Hainan chicken-rice wrap and Thai-style prawn wrap in its Chinese stores.
Of course, adaptation is a delicate exercise. In the end, Starbucks, or for that matter any foreign brand needs to maintain its distinct foreignness to resonate among the local consumers as authentic as well as consistent with its promise. At the same time, it needs to inject enough of a local flavor, through extended menu items in the case of food franchises, to supplement its core global line and adapt to local tastes. It also needs to understand the consumption experience sought, adding elements to store design and implementation to capture the hearts and minds of local consumers.