The Fraternity of Starbucks

Despite the worst economy in years, Starbucks is thriving. You would think that a company (in)famous for its five dollar coffee would be the first to roll over in the recession, but the company as a whole seems to be pretty viable. And that’s despite increased competition from cheaper places like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and even 7-Eleven. There are plenty of books and blogs out there analyzing why, but as a Starbucks junkie, I think it comes down to one major factor: Starbucks is a club, a fraternity that makes its members (customers) feel like they’re part of something special.

Secret Language

Starbucks has its own lingo, most notably in its drink sizes: “tall”, “grande” and “venti”. Why not “small”, “medium” and “large”? The employees (“partners”) there certainly understand the difference. If you go in and order a small latte, the cashier will give you want while repeating a translated version to the barista making the drinks. I’m certain that the main reason for this is to make sure your order comes out right, but it also serves a secondary purpose: language immersion. As a former Spanish teacher, I am very familiar with this concept. If a student asked me a question in English, I would repeat it back in Spanish, reinforcing the translation in the students’ heads. Through its use of shorthand, Starbucks does the same for its customers, making them feel like they’re part of a club, one with its own secret code.

Starbucks Card

Of course, clubs need more than just a secret language. They also need to provide their members with “perks”. Starbucks has this, in the form of the Gold Card. This gives you things like free shots of syrup, free refills of drip coffee and a free drink every fifteen drinks. But here’s the catch, you can’t just buy a membership into this club. To get in, you have to put money on a gift card, register it online, and use it to buy a certain number of drinks. If this seems convoluted, I think it’s supposed to be. There’s a certain level of “initiation” involved, one that makes you feel like you earned your status as a Gold Card member. And while it’s not on a level of hazing anywhere near that of a college fraternity, it still fulfills that basic human need to belong to something.

No Nametags

All of this would be meaningless without the human element. Giving your drinks funny names and making your customers go through a bunch of rigamarole would be counterproductive without the personal touch to back it up. This is where Starbucks excels the most. If you’re a regular, chances are the baristas at your local Starbucks will greet you by name. And yet, if you want to know the employees’ names, you’ll have to ask. They don’t wear nametags. This helps build camaraderie. It forces customers and employees to create a human bond that makes their transaction seem less mercantile. This gives Starbucks a leg up on so many “Mom & Pop” cafes. The idea is to make you feel like you’re at a locally-owned coffeehouse while giving you the familiarity and consistency that only a multinational conglomerate can provide.

Not everyone spends as much time at Starbucks as I do. (Few people do, in fact.) But even for the casual customer, the rules still apply. Even customers in a hurry seem to like ordering a “grande no-foam half-caf latte with two Splenda”. Things like secret codes, membership cards, and personal transactions go a long way into making the coffee giant a pleasant place to visit. We as human beings have a visceral need to belong to a tribe. And just like Facebook, Starbucks taps into that instinct. Through the use of this (real life) social network, Starbucks continues to succeed in uncertain times.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at

You may also like...

21 Responses

  1. Mary says:

    This is true. For a long time I fought against the stupid names by ordering “a small brewed coffee” or whatever. But I realize this morning I ordered a “tall bold”. I guess I got initiated somewhere along the line without noticing.

  2. I know the indoctrination is subtle, but it works. I now use Tall, Grande and Venti without a second thought.

  3. Starbucks’ secret menu, even I didn’t know a lot of these.

  1. August 22, 2011

    […] factor – but it certainly didn’t help. In case you don’t know, Seattle’s Best is owned by Starbucks. Originally a chain of its own, it was purchased by its fellow Seattle chain in 2003. The following […]

  2. September 4, 2011

    […] coffee shop is a great place to get some work done. If you’re a freelancer, it keeps you away from the […]

  3. September 23, 2011

    […] use brands and logos the way feudal lords once used banners and shields. Once you’ve hooked someone into your “tribe”, you’ve got a loyal customer for life. However, these loyal customers demand something in […]

  4. November 3, 2011

    […] the other half were looking around with a look of confusion. Like me, they were wondering what Starbucks had to do with the invasion of Iraq. I really wanted to grab a bullhorn and yell “Focus, […]

  5. January 12, 2012

    […] I’ll probably end up drinking more coffee. Lord knows I don’t need more coffee. […]

  6. March 8, 2013

    […] invented Starbucks as a kid. Okay, not really, but I wonder if I could’ve. Back in the 1980s, before gourmet […]

  7. March 8, 2013

    […] I found retailers who would ship to the island for a reasonable price: Amazon, Old Navy and Starbucks. I was very excited when I found out that Starbucks shipped USPS to any state or territory for five […]

  8. March 30, 2013

    […] captures the look of the Alhambra (though the Alhambra doesn’t have a parking lot and a Starbucks within its walls.) It’s certainly no substitute for real Spanish architecture, but it’s […]

  9. April 26, 2013

    […] day, I was at Starbucks, sitting next to a basket of newspapers. I saw the comics section and pulled it out. It was my […]

  10. February 13, 2014

    […] root beer, but I don’t remember that.) this was back in the 1980s, well before there was a Starbucks on every corner. Sometimes I wonder if I could have led the 1990s coffee craze if only I had been a […]

  11. April 23, 2014

    […] operating system for phones and tablets. It might not seem that way when your hanging out at Starbucks, but Android beats out Apple’s iOS in terms of sheer numbers. This makes sense. Even though […]

  12. August 21, 2014

    […] it was only as a teenager that I really got into the coffee shop scene. It was the late 1990s, and Starbucks was just making its way into mid-Michigan. Coffee shops were big, and I found on I really liked. It […]

  13. September 1, 2014

    […] five. I rarely ever drink Folgers and Maxwell House. I spend an unhealthy portion of my paycheck at Starbucks, and I grind my own coffee at home. After going to a couple of pretentious coffee shops. I realize […]

  14. March 10, 2015

    […] in the style of Shepard Fairey’s famous “Obey” poster, substituting the Starbucks siren for André the […]

  15. February 2, 2017

    […] markets. That’s why Maxwell House and Folgers don’t run giant coffee shop chains like Starbucks. It’s why Elon Musk doesn’t want to sell his electric Tesla cars through traditional […]

  16. February 3, 2017

    […] and “small”, “medium” and “large” drink sizes instead of “tall”, “grande” and “venti”. Imagine […]

  17. February 6, 2017

    […] factor – but it certainly didn’t help. In case you don’t know, Seattle’s Best is owned by Starbucks. Originally a chain of its own, it was purchased by its fellow Seattle chain in 2003. The following […]

  18. October 13, 2017

    […] made it to the “Original” Starbucks (which is a replacement, but let’s pretend.) Can you tell how excited I […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.