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• The Washington Post continues what has become almost a national pastime – looking into the soul of Starbucks to see if, indeed, it still has one.

This piece starts with the recent memo written by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz in which he challenged the company to reconnect with its core business even while continuing to expand, and contrasts it with the operations at some Seattle independent coffee shops.

One of them is Victrola, “a popular independent coffee shop on Seattle's Capitol Hill” where “a chrome-covered, vastly complicated, all-manual espresso machine yowled and hissed. The joint reeked of fresh roasted coffee. With spiky hair, great gobs of eye shadow and garrulous ways, two baristas ground beans for each new shot of espresso. Slowly and carefully, they created lattes in heavy china cups, each drink with its own distinctive floral pattern. Around the store, customers hunched over laptops, sponging up free Wi-Fi, slowly nursing their espresso investments. A scarred, but serviceable, upright piano stood off in the corner. It is played, sometimes with virtuosity, by stragglers coming in off the street.”

One customer notes that the all-manual espresso machines offer a level of variability that a multinational retailer like Starbucks simply cannot afford. “With these old machines, you run the risk of variability in every cup,” he says. “But sometimes you get art.”

• The New York Times has a piece suggesting that if Starbucks wants to re-energize its customer base, one of the things it can do is shift from its paid-as-you-go Wi-Fi offering to free wireless Internet access…that it is one of the ways it can get people to spend more time – and potentially money – in its cafés.

After all, the Times asks, “How welcome can one feel when staring at a meter that is running?”

• The Wall Street Journal reports this morning on how Starbucks “is locked in a trademark dispute with Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries. The battle was spurred by a rare aggressive attempt by a developing country to assert intellectual property rights.

“Ethiopia, which Starbucks trumpets as the birthplace of coffee, is seeking to trademark the names of its most famous coffee regions -- Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe – which appear on the packaging of Starbucks and other coffee roasters.”

According to the story, the retailer “refuses to sign a royalty-free trademark licensing agreement offered by Ethiopia. Starbucks executives say the agreement is legally onerous and believe it would place too much responsibility on the company to defend Ethiopia's trademark.”

• And, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Starbucks has other problems – in India, where it hopes to begin opening stores later this year, a local entrepreneur plans to start her own chain of cafés, called Starstrucks.

Starbucks has filed a complaint with the government there, but Shanhaz Husain isn’t budging. She says her stores with have a Hollywood theme, and she’s prepared to fight for her rights.
KC's View:
We’ll agree with the New York Times on its observation – Starbucks ought to offer free Wi-Fi. It’d be a huge hit for the company, and might replace some of the negative publicity it’s been getting lately.

As for the so-called search for Starbucks’ soul, we remain confident in the company’s management because they are facing these issues BEFORE they become major problems and dealing with them head-on.

What some pundits don’t realize is that there should be creative tensions within a company when it is trying to grow and still maintain a level of fidelity to the core brand and mission. If there were no tension, it would mean that one side or the other is winning the battle hands down, and that probably means a loss of one perspective or the other.

This kind of internal questioning means the brand is healthy…not unhealthy.

(Full disclosure: We’ve mentioned it before, but it is worth reiterating it from time to time. Our 17-year-old son is a barista at a local Starbucks, and it has been one of the great experiences of his life. So we tend to have very strong positive feelings about the company’s culture.)