[Essay] The Mythology of Starbucks — Maddy Howard

In 1957, Roland Barthes published his Mythologies, a collection of essays examining the modern myth surrounding everyday phenomena. Myth, he said, is the ‘social usage which is added to pure matter’ (1973:118). Barthes theorised that semiological systems that distort meaning, such as advertising, cause us to believe that the historical reality we attribute to objects is their natural reality (Barthes, 1973:117-132). Obviously, the meanings we attach to objects are neither natural nor irrefutable; they are based on our own culturally dependent knowledge of reality (Barthes, 1973:128). Every single person creates and is created by this system: it is a condition of humanity. You don’t have to look far for examples of mythologies, nationhood being one of the most frequently discussed. What is it about Stephen Fry that makes half of Britain go all warm and fuzzy? Or the kindred pleasure when Americans don’t get ‘cheeky’ Nando’s? Here, I’m going to talk about the mythology of Starbucks.

Our relationship with food is fraught with social implications: we attach routine to food, it manipulates our mood and has a ritualistic function. Ordering a drink at Starbucks is a delicate process, as it reflects upon the customer’s identity. They may order something elaborate or larger than usual, and glance ruefully at their companion; the latter will titter and be appropriately impressed or blithely disapproving. The strained, suited busy bee will bark an order for a Venti Americano – no milk – as he needs those four espresso shots as fuel. No cup space is wasted on ‘soothing’ milk, ‘the opposite of fire’ (Barthes, 1973:68). For the highly-strung, time-poor professional the drink is not meant to sooth, but to re-kindle energy. Skimmed milk is dubbed “skinny milk”, a painfully direct reminder of self-image. Drinking at Starbucks is linked with city life: the customer is a self-defined urbanite with routines and responsibilities that tick to an unwavering metropolitan rhythm. Drinks are consumed on the go and the cup is mobile and disposable: fuel for a hectic lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum, the sugary concoctions and ostentatious Frappuccinos are a reward for accomplishing those personal daily goals, gratuitous treats for the spending of disposable income.

In Barthes’ analysis of Elle magazine’s recipes, he observes its techniques of ornamentation to create a visual fantasy for consumers (1973:85). A similar fantasy can be seen around Starbucks drinks, particularly in relation to their nomenclature. The Italian names roll off the tongue with a satisfying trill and bestow the drinks with a vague sense of Italianicity, evoking a culture of leisure, delicacy and quality. The names given to the cup sizes are nonsensical: the stoutest cup is “tall” and the other two names do not fit into an English-language system of definition. This supports a perception that Starbucks is “different” from other coffee shops, a kind of mythical world in which fantastic, sweet creations echo the delights of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The customer is light-headed from the caffeine and the sugar rush, entranced by the extravagant and the colourful.

On the mythology of French toys, Barthes explains that ‘the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator’ (1973:60). The phrase “make it yours” is written on the drinks board at Starbucks, encouraging customers to request extra ingredients and adapt their drink. Like Barthes’s child, the Starbucks customer is also a “user” as they are drinking predefined combinations of coffee, milk and flavours. However, the illusion of choice created by the imperative “make it yours” lends itself to a subconscious belief that the customer creates his or her drink. Through phrases like these, the customer is led to believe that the Starbucks drink isn’t an average product, as there is an element of creativity and two-way decision involved in its making. A similar process takes place when the customer is asked to recycle the cup sleeve. The matte cardboard packaging in modest white, green and brown visually transmits an alliance with a sustainable, eco-friendly way of life. The cardboard cups convince the consumer they are being good to the planet when they are handed a drink – they are so elated by this thought that they forget to recycle the cup by the time they have finished.

Less obvious than the sensory effects of advertising, and perhaps more disconcerting, is the way Starbucks appears to subconsciously influence the individual routine and temperament of the consumer. In his explanation of myth, Barthes (1973:139) mentions the alibi: the distortion that the meaning imposes on the form, the alibi for behaving in a certain way. I have observed that regular customers create routines around their consumption and self-imposed rules to decide what and when they are allowed to drink. The main alibi is that coffee makes their body and mind function; its powers are necessary to get through the trials of the day. Although caffeine stimulates energy, so strong is the idolatry surrounding it that the question arises: if decaf were served without the customer knowing, would a placebo effect take place? There are routines associated with the consumption, but the customer also feels the effect of the myth on his temperament. The robust, lingering taste of hot coffee gives us strength and vitality. In contrast, the sweet, creamy cold Frappuccino comforts: its milkiness is maternal and restorative, milk is ‘cosmetic’ (Barthes, 1973:68), and its luxurious decoration and sweetness connotes a childhood treat. Barthes says that steak ‘is supposed to benefit all the temperaments’ (1973:69) and the aesthetic and tactile features of the drinks also improve our mood. Just as Barthes says the texture of steak, its sanguine juiciness, seem to be magically health-giving, the foamy, insubstantial milkiness of a cappuccino or latte has its own special sublimity. It is light, airy, ethereal, and so removed from stodgy, everyday food and elevated to the status of ambrosia. In his chapter on soaps and detergents, Barthes discusses the reaction between foam and the senses: its ‘almost infinite proliferation’ and connotations of luxury have the power to console the spirit and restore contentment. Starbucks advertises that its summer drinks will refresh you and its hot drinks are warming on cold days: with the right ingredients, you can shape your mood to your liking. Just as Barthes (1973:67) noted that wine may be cooling or warming depending on necessity, Starbucks drinks are able to relieve any discomfort their customers may have. They have a range of appealing adjectives attached to them, ready to promote their medicinal qualities.

Starbucks plays out Barthes’s theory of contemporary myth in consumer society. Its relationship with the customer is heavily influenced by semiological systems of advertising, which subtly form the illusions and fantasies surrounding our identity as consumers. Starbucks drinks have created a reality that is taken for granted as natural; they are a comforting device for self-improvement and self-definition. This is, of course, fiction. As in all consumer mythologies, the complex significations attached to these products are ultimately manufactured by advertisers, designers, and marketers. Through semiologically transmitting a whimsical appeal and the illusion of control to the customer, Starbucks has managed to convince society that these drinks mean more than their matter.


Maddy Howard holds a BA in English Literature from the University of Manchester.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Maddy,

    Congratulations on your results and this informative article.
    I’ve never liked the Starbucks concept.
    Barbara (your Ma’s ex Portuguese pupil)

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