It should come as no surprise that a successful brand, once vindicated through repeated growth and revenue amidst expansion, should explore its opportunities in other countries. This tendency is such common knowledge that it influences global consumer culture almost unconsciously. Long gone are the days where we might have pondered, “[McDonald’s] is everywhere I go in the US. Is it possible we might find it when we travel overseas?” Sure, McDonald’s is an easy target, but it’s a ridiculous question in 2022; nobody asks it because we all know the answer. Of course if a business grows enough in its own national market, it will try to expand internationally. The leap isn’t much more radical than when a hometown bank/dry cleaners/architecture firm/falafel shop opens a new location out of state. Good for them. And in the era of globalization, do we even raise our eyebrows when a consulting firm’s second physical office hopscotches across national boundaries?
Perhaps more remarkable in 2022 is when it doesn’t happen quite as one would expect, and how an entrepreneurial class might capitalize on a successful foreign, multinational company’s lapses in good strategy. Starbucks Corporation, for example, is an almost universally recognized American coffee shop, reflecting and promulgating a comfy upper-middlebrow culture through its contempo-homey operations and expensive products. Having begun in 1971 as a humble carryout purveyor of roasted coffee beans in and around Seattle’s Pike Place Market, its aggressive expansion as a coffeeshop only began in the 1980s. At the time of its first IPO in 1992, the company still had only a bit more than one hundred outlets, but its expansion throughout the 1990s soon made it ubiquitous in American cities over a core size (and their suburbs). And by the time Starbucks was expanding it smaller American cities, rest stops, partnerships with other retailers (grocery stores and booksellers), it was boldly venturing to lucrative high-profile urban locations in cities across the globe. By 2018, more than half of Starbucks Corporation’s 33,000 locations are scattered across six dozen other countries; the Starbucks logo is just as prevalent outside the US as inside.
While its rare that a location in the US cannot support a Starbucks, provided there’s not another one too close by (though sometimes two Starbucks in the same block is still manageable!), a few high-profile countries have nearly systematically rejected the brand. Most noticeably, Starbucks has not flourished in Australia, contrasting the nation sharply with the rest of the Anglosphere; Canada and the UK both have plenty of Starbucks. They first started opening in Oz back in 2000, when the global expansion was really gaining a toehold. But the rapid effort to sweep the nation completely failed; by 2008 the corporation closed 75% of its Australian locations. Today, Starbucks is peppered lightly across the largest cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane; the Gold Coast has a few. Adelaide, Canberra, and Perth have none. Back in the early 2000s, Starbucks was first and foremost a coffee shop with limited other comestible options. Assuming the model would work as it had in other English-speaking countries, the corporation offered little modification as it pioneered sites down under. Australians, having long enjoyed a coffee culture that included plenty of light-lunch foods, largely rejected the brand. It doesn’t appear all that big in New Zealand either.
But New Zealand, Australia, and about 76 other countries can still get their tall, grande, or venti at least somewhere within their national boundaries. The same cannot be said about the West Bank (Palestine), which may explain how this block in Bethlehem can get away with this homage to the world’s biggest coffeehouse chain:
Betcha this wasn’t the country you thought I’d be featuring (unless of course you got here from one of my promotional links). Yes, this is a high street in central Bethlehem, and yes. Squarebucks Coffee is the name of the java shop. I wonder how the owner came up with the brand?
To be fair, Squarebucks doesn’t quite replicate the Seattle brand’s famous twin-tailed mermaid: it looks like it’s just an attractive woman in the circular frame, more realistically rendered than even the older versions of the Starbucks logo (the original of which featured unabashed nudity). But Squarebucks still clearly finds inspiration from across the pond, reasonably approximating the shade of green and the chunky, sans-serif font that help galvanize the Starbucks brand. Within Bethlehem, Squarebucks isn’t alone. In fact, just a few hundred feet away, on essentially the same block on the same road, Squarebucks has a competitor:
Not the Starbucks logo, of course, but this imitator’s logo is simultaneously closer and farther from its Seattle source: the name is an unapologetic backformation, and the branding comes closer to the Starbucks green, while the font resembles Starbucks less. And the circular frame lacks a mermaid or a siren; it features a bland four cups of coffee. The Stars & Bucks also achieves (probably intentionally) a mild pun on the country that spawned the original: the primary emblem on the nation’s flag and the most common slang term for its currency. Stars & Bucks Coffee is more established than Squarebucks; it was around back during the last Google Street View photographic drive-though in Bethlehem, and there appears to be one other Stars & Bucks Café location about 25 miles to the north, deep within the West Bank city of Nablus. (I recall glimpsing it driving through Nablus but didn’t snap a photo. Given that the Nablus location of Stars & Bucks sells hamburgers, it isn’t exactly drawing much inspiration from a Starbucks menu.)
Even these two vaguely Starbucks inspired brands aren’t alone: though I didn’t see it myself, a neighboring street features a StarB Coffee (or Golden Star B?), again appropriating the Starbucks color and blocky all-caps font. This one takes it a step further, selling Starbucks Bethlehem mugs with the Palestinian flag on the back, which unabashedly “borrow” the mermaid logo. Not sure if there’s a local coffee shop that pays tribute to the Starbucks logo in Jericho, the lowest city in the world (just northwest of the shores of the Dead Sea), but it’s worth referencing since it’s only a few dozen miles away from Bethlehem. I was in Jericho briefly but saw no Starbucks logo.
So how do they get away with this? Multiple coffee shops in Bethlehem alone have sufficiently appropriated the iconography long associated with Starbucks to market their own businesses. These practices, in the United States, would undoubtedly constitute a copyright violation. But where do things stand in Palestine, where no Starbucks locations operate? Could that in itself be sufficient reason that these imitators can slip through the cracks? West Bank, of course, is a semi-sovereign territory consisting of a patchwork lands under varying civil administration between Israel, the Palestinian National Authority, and shared control. The density of governmental supervisory powers is a sufficiently fraught undertaking that outside corporations don’t typically want to get too ensnared. McDonald’s has no locations in West Bank either. And besides, should Starbucks Corporation seek to intervene in such a case, the axiomatic David-Goliath battle compounded with Palestine’s delicate (and heavily monitored) state would result in such poor optics that it would be corporate suicide. It’s as futile of a battle as the numerous black-market knockoffs of Sony, Yamaha, Samsung, Panasonic, etc one might encounter in the fly-by-night bazaars of India or Pakistan. They’re ubiquitous, they’re not sanctioned by the parent companies, these products will fall apart within three weeks, and everybody knows it. But it’s a quick buck for impoverished vendors in such countries. Squarebucks, Stars & Bucks, and StarB will operate with impunity and they know it. Who cares that their use of the Starbucks logo is tantamount to branding thievery. Maybe the other two will follow Stars & Bucks’ lead and expand outside of Bethlehem.
It’s an interesting testament to Starbucks’ solicitousness that its website still features an eight-year-old article regarding its relationship with the Middle East. The “non-political organization” that is Starbucks seeks to explain its lack of a presence in neighboring Israel, assuring the reader that the corporation does not contribute to the Israeli government or Army. And the lack of a presence in Israel (let alone West Bank and Gaza) since the 2003 dissolution of the partnership has more to do with “on-going operational challenges” than any broadly based political disputes. I can only infer from the tone of the article a quote from Hamlet: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.” After all, McDonald’s is everywhere in Israel. And Starbucks Corporation has a sizable presence throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with over 20 locations in Jordan alone, right across the Dead Sea from West Bank. They’re commonplace in Amman. Some of the oil-rich countries have hundreds of locations. Historically Euro-friendly Turkey has over 450—the 7th highest non-US country in the world. But they’re harder to find in Israel and Palestine than they are in Australia. They’re completely absent, but widely available in almost all neighboring countries.
Perhaps Starbucks Corporation would flex its litigating biceps against any Starbucks logo violations in some of these wealthier, more politically stable countries. But for Bethlehem, these amiable mom-and-pop knockoffs are the closest they can get to a chicken and hummus protein box with a venti honey almond milk flat white. Such cultural deprivation! Maybe a shared desire to bring the green-aproned baristas to Holy Land will help the Israelis and Palestinians finally get along. Stranger things have happened.