It's easy to joke about Starbucks'
But recent news from China illustrates that Starbucks isn't welcome anywhere and everywhere.
After seven years, Starbucks is closing its store located smack dab in the middle of China's ancient Forbidden City. A former imperial complex that UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 1987, the logic behind Starbucks' desire to be there makes perfect business sense. After all, it's an important Chinese site and tourist destination, with somewhere between 7 million and 9 million tourists each year.
But it's understandable if the Chinese are feeling sensitive about the matter. The City was built in 1420 and housed 24 Chinese emperors until 1911 (it became a museum in 1925). Its name refers to the tradition that it was closed to the public and foreigners who didn't have special permission to enter. It already survived a very well-known period in China -- the infamous Cultural Revolution -- and that was no easy task, since it couldn't be more symbolic of the old imperial ways. It doesn't seem hard to fathom that the Chinese might feel sensitive about modern Western logos and brands at a location that has endured so many centuries and so much change, and thereby speaks to national identity.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that this means the Chinese people will be particularly adverse to Starbucks in general, although maybe we investors shouldn't underestimate the potential for difficulties. Companies as formidable as eBay
This doesn't even really touch on the political elements. Both Google
Starbucks has chosen to close its doors in the Forbidden City, since staying in operation would require dropping its name. (It had already removed its sign from the premises, but the ubiquitous cups with the Starbucks logo betrayed its presence within the site.) And you know darn well that Starbucks wouldn't stand for operating a cafe that doesn't have its all-important brand name attached. Starbucks has its own culture to think about, too.
I think it would be premature to get rattled about Starbucks' plans in China, especially at a tourist site that wishes to remain non-commercialized (particularly by companies that are symbolic of Western culture). Still, it doesn't hurt for us to be mindful that Starbucks and other American companies may have to tread very carefully into this ancient culture.