My son Everett, who's almost four, was so excited when a "Starbooks" (as he calls it) was built on the corner a few blocks from our front door. He knows Starbucks as a reliable outlet for chocolate cow (the little Horizon milks with the picture of the cow) and glazed doughnuts. Several local Starbucks have little reading areas for families with children. Every time we drop in to our corner coffee shop, we run into other children packed in strollers and baby carriers. In our neighborhood, at least, Starbucks is all about young children.
The company officially has a policy that it won't market to kids. Yet anyone who's been in a Starbucks outlet recently has noted a not-subtle shift. First there was the Laurie Berkner DVD (the first DVD marketed in Starbucks) -- she's a wildly popular children's singer. Then Dan Zanes CDs joined Berkner on the shelf. A few months ago I was unsurprised to see, next to heaps of stuffed bears, barrels of brightly-colored children's books (Dot and Dash, a ladybug and a turtle, go on adventures through "Mango Mooka Forest" and "Strawberry Summit," where muffins grow in the trees and chocolate rice krispie treats peak from behind oversized fruit).
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Starbucks' "written policy says its 'overall marketing, advertising and event sponsorship efforts are not directed at children or youth,' although some 'community activities' end up reaching kids. The company reviews marketing materials to avoid distributing ones that could be 'inadvertently appealing to youth.' " Yet June was welcomed in with the company's summer drink lineup; many of them available in non-caffeinated and decidedly kid-focused versions. As the Journal pointed out, the company staged marketing events at zoos and other kid-friendly locales.
Are these drinks really targeted at adults? Take the Blackberry Green Tea Frappuccino, which is low on caffeine and loved by my four-year-old and one-year-old alike. It's sweet, it's cold, it's topped with whipped cream and purple goo. What's not to love? And how about the treat we all shared two nights ago, the Banana Coconut Frappuccino (according to the Wall Street Journal, it's 550 calories and 14 grams of fat for the Grande size).
Starbucks can crow on and on all it likes about how its marketing isn't targeted to children. Its products, its outlets, its ambiance: they're all about children and their parents. The strategy certainly isn't a bad one -- after all, the stay-at-home parents are the ones filling the tables of its neighborhood stores on weekday afternoons, the families are eagerly paying $12 for breakfast sandwiches and frothy drinks on weekend mornings.
As the products depart further and further from the serious coffee aficionado, Starbucks must naturally target the one consumer who doesn't know the difference between push-button coffee machines and the hand-cranked originals that predated them. In a word, children.
I only wonder if the company will soon discard its well-meaning but inconsistent-with-reality policy: kids are, after all, its future.