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Selling coffee becomes diacritical for McDonald's

Starbucks is in the golden arches' sights.

May 05, 2009|DAN NEIL

McDonald's -- never known for a delicate marketing touch -- is about to drop the mother of all campaigns on you, an everywhere-you-look, invade-your-dreams ad campaign in support of its McCafe specialty coffee drinks that will be not so much viral as bubonic. An estimated $100-million mega-buy across TV, Web, radio, print, outdoor and social media, the McCafe push beginning today will be, according to the company, its biggest "menu initiative" since it began serving breakfast in the 1970s.

Personally, I'm diving for the nearest McBomb shelter.

And yet, there's something oddly comforting and old school about the newest McCampaign. Consumerism defines one's culture and troop and tribe, with today's hyper-focused segmentation parsing us, nanometer-thin, by age, race, gender, language, income. Advertisers now chase us across the digital playground, following our clicks and cookies and friends and tweets until they have us psychographically cornered.

The McCafe campaign will at last unite us under the same latte-shilling mushroom cloud.

The situation is this: We drink a lot of coffee. About 110 million Americans consume roughly 300 million cups of coffee daily. Starbucks has specialty coffee customers; McDonald's wants them.

The green mermaid is a bit seasick these days. Last year it was obliged to close hundreds of stores and lay off 12,000 employees -- a move that seemed to break the Seattle coffee chain's aura of enchantment. But lately Starbucks losses have stabilized. Same-store sales were down a tolerable 8% in the second quarter, even as consumer spending and discretionary income continued to crater.

Theory No. 1: Perhaps Starbucks' clientele is clinging to a vestige of better times, an affordable luxury while necessities grow increasingly unaffordable.

Theory No. 2: free WiFi.

Sensing the opportunity to peel off some of Starbucks' priced-out customers, the Ronald is launching a menu of cheaper cappuccinos, lattes, iced coffees and hot chocolate, most of which -- judging by the first TV commercials -- will be smothered in a foot of whipped cream. A series of three commercials will begin running this week: One, set in a nightclub and featuring Detroit soul singer Dwele, is directed at the African American community and highlights the sweet, chocolate-y McCafe options; a Spanish language spot has a young woman walking to work, daydreaming about her iced mocha, which apparently "complements all" her "desires" with sugar and caffeine. Me encanta.

Speaking of being lost in translation: This campaign has a bit of a language problem, doesn't it? "McCafe" is hard to say -- having three stressed syllables -- and American audiences have almost no experience with diacritical marks, so the acute accent mark on the final e is going to leave some fast-fooders bewildered.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the diacritical issue, the campaign's general-audience TV spot (DDB Chicago) features ordinary people's daily drudgery being transformed by a McCafe drink, so that "commute," becomes "commute" and cubicle becomes "cubicle." That seems somewhat lame.

In response to the McCafe campaign, Starbucks is pushing back with print ads this week touting the quality of its coffee. It needn't fret its little mermaid head. McDonald's isn't selling coffee so much as caffeinated milkshakes, and the visuals associated with the first round of ads are likely to send dietitians screaming into the night.

What's fascinating to me about all this is the arc of coffee in America. A decade ago, the Starbucks audience was primarily affluent, college-educated progressives, a self-selected clientele of so-called latte liberals. Starbucks imported the notion of cafe society into the United States. It was the promised "third place" between home and work, where one could relax, read, talk and delectify a good cuppa in peace. Starbucks was social without the media.

But soon, in a mysterious alchemy between status and stimulants, Starbucks became prestige coffee, an aspirational beverage. The company, attempting to keep up with the money flooding in, standardized its retail environments, replaced its La Marzocco machines with automatic espresso machines, started to sell breakfast and lunch, and began hawking truckloads of branded merchandise and music.

By February 2007, Starbucks had well and truly sold out. In a notorious memo, Chairman Howard Schultz admitted the company had sacrificed the "romance and theater" of the coffee-shop experience to efficiency and profit. The sites, Schultz lamented, "no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores versus the warm feeling of a neighborhood store."

Starbucks failed, in other words, when it became the McDonald's of coffee. It seems only fair, perhaps inevitable, that Mickey D's fall on its big red nose attempting to be the Starbucks of fast-food.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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