Starbucks In China
January 8, 2014

Chinese Consumers View Starbucks As Status Symbol

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Chinese consumers view Starbucks as a symbol of class status rather than just a place to get your morning pick-me-up.

University of Leicester researchers conducted a study to investigate Chinese attitudes towards western brands, specifically looking at Starbucks.

In 2007, a Starbucks store in Beijing’s Forbidden City closed down after a campaign protested that the presence of the café was tarnishing Chinese culture in the area. Although this protest resulted in a branch closing, the latest study reveals that Starbucks is still a significant asset for Chinese consumers, rather than a liability.

Starbucks has expanded across China since it first opened a store there in 1999. To date, there are more than 400 Starbucks outlets currently open in China.

According to the findings published in Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, Chinese middle-class consumers view Starbucks as a high class status product, allowing them to feel that they are truly international.

“Consuming at Starbucks offers more than a cup of coffee to the urban Chinese middle class. It is an instrument to demonstrate their status -- both their social class and more subjective characteristics, such as being modern, international or fashionable,” stated Dr Jennifer Smith Maguire, a senior lecturer in cultural production and consumption at the School of Management at the University of Leicester.

The team conducted in-depth interviews with 20 members of the Chinese urban middle-class, including entrepreneurs, professionals and civil servants. The researchers looked into the strategies and cues respondents use to understand and authenticate Starbucks as a foreign brand, as well as looked at the socio-cultural context for engagements with the brand as a symbol of status. They also studied how respondents used Starbucks as a bridge to try and experience a Western way of life.

“We suggest that these findings highlight the role of foreign brands – and consumer goods more generally – in the problems of individual and collective identity formation,” the team wrote in the journal.

A 48-year-old Chinese middle-class man interviewed as part of the study admitted that Starbucks’ coffee flavor isn’t the main reason he goes to get his drink on.

“Starbucks coffee is good! But coffee is not the most important factor for me to go to Starbucks. Most of the Starbucks consumers belong to the upper class or middle class. Sitting in Starbucks should be regarded as a business card in order to show my taste and status,” the Chinese man said.

The researchers said a 28-year-old woman told them that because today’s market has a lot of fake products, she goes to trustworthy brands.

“Foreign-made products are better than domestic products in terms of quality or taste,” the woman said.

Another interviewee for the study said that going to Starbucks feels like becoming international, partly because so many foreigners are sitting there too.