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Venti, Venti Annoying: So How Does Starbucks Misspell Your Name?

Deconstructing Our Obsession With a Certain Omnipresent Coffee Chain

By Published on . 5

A few weeks back I spotted a jpeg on image-sharing site Imgur with the caption "Told the barista my name was 'Bryan, with a y.' This is what I got back." It showed a Starbucks cup with a hastily scrawled "Briany" on it. Ha! When I shared the image on Twitter, I heard back from plenty of folks who also thought it was funny -- and were eager to share their own tales of Starbucks name-mangling. I just checked the stats on that image and it's been viewed 489,502 times as of this writing.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

Coincidentally, around the same time I happened to publish a post on AdAge.com with a video embed of a "Saturday Night Live" commercial parody that also focused on Starbucks name-mangling -- within the larger context of Starbucks-employee incompetence. The faux spot was for the Starbucks Verismo home-brewing system and it showed a nice lady patiently trying to use her machine in her kitchen, only to have it botch her order and refer to her as "Amorfa" (instead of "Marsha"). My post about the commercial parody dominated AdAge.com's Most Read chart for a couple of days and has been one of the most-viewed things on our site so far in 2013.

This is comforting to me, because it suggests that my unhealthy obsession with Starbucks is a common condition. I mean, obviously plenty of people are obsessed with Starbucks -- people talk all the time about needing their "Starbucks fix" -- and of course it's normal to think a lot about drugs (like caffeine) before, during and after using them. But I'm not a big coffee drinker, and I actually rarely go to Starbucks (I'm not a fan of their roasts), which makes my obsession perhaps particularly unhealthy. You see, my fixation on the chain has more to do with Starbucks as a sort of inescapable, free-floating meme by virtue of its omnipresence in our lives and its unique status as the no-rent headquarters of millions of laptop-toting media-makers across the land.

And, well, I'm fascinated by the cognitive dissonance prompted by the contrast between Starbucks' still semi-convincing upscale positioning (it has to at least pretend to be upscale, to justify its prices) and its often misery-making ambience -- especially in big cities, where it's not uncommon to see hopelessly long lines and quasi-homeless laptop jockeys who never leave and hog all the tables.

My issue is basically this: How the hell do you stop thinking about a brand you really wish you could stop thinking about? Starbucks to me is like the brand equivalent of an annoying pop song I just can't stop singing in my head. ("Starbucks, you're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." "Starbucks, we are never, ever getting back together.") Especially in New York, where I live, the chain is always up in your face. Just when you've momentarily, blissfully forgotten that it exists, you turn a corner and there's another damn Starbucks.

An obsession

To help me work though my issues, I decided to turn to a man who's even more Starbucks-obsessed than I am -- my old friend Jim Romenesko, the famed media blogger (JimRomenesko.com) who has had a little side project, the Starbucks Gossip blog, since 2004. Jim's verdict about why I feel the way I do -- why we all do -- about Starbucks these days:

"Starbucks' mantra used to be 'legendary service' -- that was drilled into baristas' heads during training," he told me. "'Have a great day' was the standard send-off for customers, and 'Just Say Yes' was the rule all employees had to follow. Much of that has changed, in part because of big labor cuts that Starbucks made in 2008 and 2009. I recall when there were always two baristas taking orders and manning registers at the stores I frequent; it's now one, often with long lines. Stressed-out baristas no longer have time to deliver 'legendary' service."

So maybe this is it: Caffeine addiction aside, we can't stop thinking about Starbucks because Starbucks is us. Recession-battered, weary, worse for the wear -- always having to do more with less. As much as we might laugh and groan at the chain's embattled baristas, we see ourselves in them. After all, much of the fabled "recovery" of the U.S. economy has been about just settling: adjusting to reduced expectations and trying not to be too bitter about it.

Confronted by creeping mediocrity at your local corporate, cookie-cutter coffee shop? Keep calm (or, uh, jittery), Starbucks customer, and carry on.

Jim Romenesko, by the way, lives in Evanston, Ill., in a Starbucks, as far as I can tell (he's one of those quasi-homeless laptop jockeys). In fact, when I reached him, he was in the crack house sipping a $1.68 tall brew out of the travel mug he'd brought in.

I don't judge.

P.S. For more Starbucks name-mangling, see the "Starbucks Alter Ego" posts on New York newscaster Pat Kiernan's website, patspapers.com.

MEDIA GUY'S GIVEAWAY OF THE WEEK: The newly released comic book "Howard Schultz: The Man Behind Starbucks." I'm not kidding; this is a real thing! It was published by Bluewater Productions, a Vancouver, Wash.-based producer of comics and young adult novels. Want a chance to win a copy? Details here.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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