Temple University professor Bryant Simon believes he knows the Starbucks secret.
And it's not the caramel macchiato or the 86,999 other drinks the international coffee purveyors sell us.
It's the lifestyle we buy with that $3 cup of joe.
Simon, 48, wanted to show how Americans communicate with their purchases.
So, for his book "Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks," he visited 435 Starbucks in the U.S. and 10 other countries, analyzing everything from the flooring to the signage and everyone from the customers to CEO Howard Schultz.
"I listened to Alanis Morissette more than anyone should have to," Simon says.
In the book, the UNC-Chapel Hill graduate explains how Starbucks became a Wall Street favorite by making its customers feel environmentally aware, upwardly mobile, connected and cool by welcoming us, by name, into their clean, urban-chic stores, pumping hip music, and selling us (some) fair-trade coffee in cups made of 60 percent recycled materials.
We got all that in one cup of coffee? At least the illusion of it, Simon says.
Simon spent five years researching, thinking and writing about the global business phenomenon that is Starbucks, a company that serves 50 million customers per week.
Then he "avoided it like the plague" until his book was published in October.
While he worked, Simon chatted up people at Starbucks and organized focus groups. He talked to interior design experts and monitored message boards on Web sites such as www.ihatestarbucks.com and www.urbandictionary.com.
He dragged his wife to Guadalajara, Mexico, to meet a Starbucks fan he'd met online.
"Everyone had something to say," he says. "It became kind of tedious, but I'd end up in the bathroom scribbling down notes on napkins."
Reading the store
Simon found clues to Starbucks success all over each shop he visited.
During a recent stop at Starbucks on Peace Street in Raleigh's Glenwood South neighborhood, Simon pointed out two big, royal purple chairs positioned in one corner. The comfy chairs offered a chance for respite; the royal purple color and velvety fabric oozed opulence and affluence.
At the store at the corner of Maynard and Chapel Hill Road in Cary, Simon explained how the napkins, featuring a message about recycling, give customers a stake in the do-good Starbucks image.
A sign asserted Starbucks as a coffee expert, featuring a photo of coffee cups on a burlap coffee sack and asking, "Can you spot the coffee made with the top 3 percent of the world's best coffee beans?"
Another sign advertised a caramel brulee latte, adorned like a holiday dessert. The message? You deserve this gift.
They work. Customers told Simon they went to Starbucks to treat themselves.
One of Simon's former students from the University of Georgia told him she bought Starbucks' Ethos water because the company donated some of the money to clean water projects overseas.
Others said they went because the relatively expensive drinks were affordable ways to have a taste of a better life.
Getting all of that for $3 or $4 is a steal. It's also the American way, Simon says.
"It's us," he says. "We want these things and we want them as easily as possible."
Simon had to rewrite the book to explain how Starbucks got off track in 2007, long before the current recession.
"Starbucks is selling status, which is a different model than say Wal-Mart, which is about selling more," he says. "When we saw Starbucks pursue the selling-more model, it cut into the status-making that had been so successful. Wal-Mart is about value. Starbucks has never been about that."
Writing about the coffee titan left Simon wanting. He tired of seeing the same piece of artwork in every store.
He told his former Georgia student that she was paying an extra 35 cents for the privilege of buying Ethos water. Starbucks gives 5 cents from each bottle to water projects. Ethos water costs about $1.80. Other bottled water of that size are in the $1.40 range.
"I pointed out that they charged her extra to help people," Simon says. "She was like, 'Oh man.' I felt bad because she was so earnest about it. She read the sign and thought, 'I'm doing something to help.' "
He noted how at one Starbucks he recently had to ask for a ceramic cup in order to avoid a paper cup. Then, that same day an employee at the Morning Times, an independent coffeehouse in downtown Raleigh, asked him the same question.
"That one gesture is more important than boasts [of environmental friendliness]," Simon says
Simon ran afoul of the company before he finished the book. He says Starbucks initially agreed to talk to him if it could have final say over what he wrote. Simon said no. He said Starbucks did not respond to his weekly e-mails for two years.
He traveled to Seattle once to do interviews scheduled through Starbucks but several were canceled. Another Starbucks employee wrote Simon saying the company felt he had "a hidden agenda."
A spokesman says Starbucks agrees with Simon that "coffeehouses play an important role in communities."
"In fact, Starbucks was founded nearly 40 years ago with that same vision, and we've been committed to facilitating public dialogue at the local and global level ever since," the spokesman wrote in an e-mailed response. "We believe that every community is unique, and we're creating places - both in our stores and online - where diverse groups can connect."
Simon feels the company still speaks through its signs, ads, etc.
"That speech was carefully considered with its audience in mind," Simon says. "They're not reticent in their own self-promotion, so in the end I don't feel the book lacks for their response."
Despite backlash from some consumers and more competition from McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, Simons says Starbucks is not about to drop off the face of the earth.
One of its cultural and business triumphs was creating a legion of coffee drinkers.
"I think it will always serve an emotional need for predictability," Simon says. "You always know what you're going to get at Starbucks."
Simon will next jump into the lion's mouth during a trip to Seattle on Jan. 14. He'll be signing his book at the Elliott Bay Book Company, a mere 1.3 miles from Starbucks corporate headquarters.
(Simon will also sign books and talk to readers at the Bull's Head Bookstore on the UNC campus Feb. 4.)
"I don't know what the reaction will be [in Seattle]," he says. "Will I get Starbucks defenders? It would be interesting. I'd encourage and welcome the debate.
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