By Lucy Kellaway
I don’t blame Starbucks for paying no tax in the UK. I don’t blame it for selling pint-sized cardboard cups of hottish milk into which a tiny bit of coffee and quite a lot of syrup have been squirted. I don’t even blame it for making every high street identical and obliterating thousands of independent cafés.
The first is the fault of the tax authorities for allowing transfer pricing wizards to run rings around them. The second is our fault for having such dodgy taste in drinks. And as for the third, the other day at one of the few surviving greasy spoons, I had a coffee that was so exceptionally revolting it left me longing for a Starbucks flat white.
What I do blame the company for is much more serious. It is something that goes right to the top. The problem is its way with words.
Last week, Starbucks said it was going to buy Teavana, a company that owns a few hundred tea shops. The general idea is to do for tea – a sector the company says is worth $40bn – what Starbucks did for coffee some 30 years ago.
To convey this simple message the company has put out an 800-word announcement that I can only describe as a best-in-class, enhanced, elevated reading experience.
Because space is short and I don’t want to dwell on what you know already, I’m not going to explain what is wrong with the multiple “delivers” and “enhances” and “leveraging core competencies” and the protestations of passion that make up much of the statement. These are small transgressions. Or “tall” transgressions, to use Starbucks’ inflated tongue.
Instead I want to go for the linguistic “grandes”, the first of which is the stated reason for the acquisition: to “enhance the consumer tea experience”. I drink about eight cups of tea a day, but I don’t think I’ve ever had anything I’d call a consumer tea experience, and I’m not at all sure I want one.
Unfortunately, skipping the experience isn’t an option. In one short release, six different experiences are rammed down our throats. As well as the enhanced tea experience, there is a “new retail experience”, an “elevated tea experience” and a “rich ecosystem of experiences”.
But most extravagant of all, and from the mouth of chief executive Howard Schultz comes “the romance and theater of the retail experience that is the heart and soul of Starbucks heritage, will create a differentiated customer experience … that delivers immediate value to shareholders”.
As a sentence, this counts as a “venti” with extra gingerbread. There is a lot of it. It’s sickly and devoid of nutrients so makes you feel queasy and unhealthy after you’ve swallowed it.
It also leaves me quite mystified: when customers pop into Starbucks for a morning coffee surely they don’t want romance or theatre, let alone hearts or souls. Just good coffee, served quickly in a congenial place. As for “delivering immediate value to shareholders”, in the 24 hours after the deal was announced on Wednesday, the value of the company fell by about $1bn.
Mr Schultz’s mealy mouthful is matched by another from the head of Teavana, Andrew Mack, who starts by asserting his company’s “deep tea expertise” and “passion for the category”, before offering his own variation on the deal’s merits. We “believe we can deliver an elevated tea experience”, he says and then explains that selling out means it “will be able to truly fulfil our mission of bringing premium tea to millions of people on a global platform”. Which global platform is that? Are we on it now? Is it what used to be called the globe, which before that was called the world?
Whatever it is, it’s spinning as the platforms and experiences