Well, China’s given us that rare opportunity to use “Starbucks coffeehouse” and “Forbidden City” in the same sentence. And now it’s making headlines once again, almost six years after opening in one of the country’s most iconic tourist destinations.
In case you missed the news back in late 2000/early 2001, here’s a quick review courtesy of CNN in December 2000:
The opening of a Starbucks in Beijing’s Forbidden City is brewing a storm in China, with outraged local media reporting that 70 percent of people would rather not sip the American chain’s frappuccinos in the footsteps of the Son of Heaven.
“This is no different from slapping China’s 1.2 billion people and 5,000-year traditional culture in the face,” said the China Consumer Journal. “Some people’s anger is no different from their feelings when our embassy was bombed.”
U.S.-bashing has been in vogue since American warplanes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s bombardment of Yugoslavia during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, triggering an outpouring of fury in Beijing.
But the media backlash against Starbucks took officials at the 600-year-old Forbidden City by surprise. Now they are considering revoking the coffee chain’s one-year license after just two months in business.
“The pressure from the media was far greater than we expected,” said Chen Junqi, an official of the Palace Museum, as the former residence of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors is now known. “There are only two ways to solve this: to wait until the contract expires or to prematurely revoke it.”
Well, I guess Starbucks and Chen Junqi thought it was a good idea.
Thing is, people thought it was a funny idea. And not just foreigners — Chinese people too. But they weren’t thinking funny “ha ha” so much. The Chinese public felt insulted and embarrassed by the slight. That includes Rui Chenggang, a CCTV anchorman who visited it with his foreign friends and watched them enjoy a few good laughs at the situation. Rui wanted to cringe.
But he didn’t push the matter back then. No, it wasn’t until he discovered that government officials — perhaps Chen Junqi among them — invited Starbucks to open there that he began speaking out. Here’s the McClatchy newspapers report on it:
Rui said he first spotted the Starbucks in the red-walled complex five years ago.
“I was showing some friends around the Forbidden City, and I saw the Starbucks logo. I thought, `Wow! Where did this come from?'” he recalled. “It’s totally out of place. I see it as a pollution of the integrity of the Forbidden City, which is the epitome of Chinese culture.”
He said he was stirred to action after a recent exchange of correspondence with Starbucks chief executive Jim Donald, who told him that Starbucks was invited to open an outlet there six years ago and did so with “great sensitivity” to the surroundings.
I think this is an interesting case here for marketers to explore.
It’s no secret that much of the Chinese public is enamored with all things foreign. Starbucks’ success in China — a country that has sworn by tea for centuries — is symbolic of this trend.
But at the same time, you have this rich cultural heritage in China. Arguably a 5,000-year heritage…and perhaps the greatest source of pride for the Chinese people.
China’s modern and traditional culture often works quite nicely together. Perhaps that’s what Starbucks had hoped. Except they forgot one small thing — never make a mockery out of China’s historical/cultural sites.
This is, after all, a country that has endured humiliating invasions over from the 1840s. People are still traumatized and horrified by what Japan did to China (if you have no inkling of this, I suggest you read this recent Bloomburg article). The Chinese public probably couldn’t stomach the imperial undertones of Starbucks’ move.
So much for the “great sensitivity” on Starbucks part.
If you’re offered some real estate in a one of China’s cultural meccas, take a step back first. Do your homework (i.e. market research). Heck, talk to the media if you have to. But know what you’re getting into. Your reputation depends on it…and that’s no joke. 😉