Tea, Coffee, Beverage, Meaning and Starbucks

One of the reported items in the ET went by the title ‘Starbucks goes plush for India, give its stores s local flavor’. It reported that the company is positioning, its coffee chain as an aspirational brand. India is by and large is a tea drinking nation. The company spokesperson said that Starbucks coffee bars should be welcoming, inviting and familiar places for people to connect. The research indicated that coffee for Indian consumers is not the primary reason to visit café bars. Rather visitors use coffee bars to meet friends and relatives. A very small portion of sales is consists of take away orders. Starbucks wants to offer its customer a unique experience.

 The reason why I am writing this post is that recently I conducted a study titled ‘Coffee and tea: socio-cultural meaning, context and branding’. This study was motivated by a desire to explore the deeper meaning that these two common beverages hold in our minds.  It threw up interesting insights, which I called as’ beverages in opposition’.  Products or commodities not mere physical entities constructed out of their parts, components or ingredients rather they are also constellations of associations/meanings. They are transformed with conscious marketing efforts or often achieve transformations automatically into psycho-social constructions.  A product or brand is not merely a ‘manufactured or assembled’ entity it is ‘much more’. Branding to a major extent is about creating this ‘much more’. Consumer buying is about meaning construction and signification in a world that is less physical is more psycho-social. Let us look at what coffee and tea stand for.

 Though coffee and tea share a lot axiomatic similarity in terms of their preparation method and usage they differ radically in their hidden symbolism. Tea and coffee have different imprints. Coffee is celebratory and tea is ordinary. Coffee consumption is uncommon and its uncommonness imbues it with a unique mystique associated with a wealthy, refined and intellectually evolved class. Coffee is not a potion for sustenance. Tea is linked to ordinariness and ritualistic in home consumption. Tea is instrumental in bringing family together in close proximity and provides platform for sharing and caring. Symbolically tea brings the family together in close proximity where adults share ideas, joys and sorrows.  

 A certain mystique is associated with coffee. Coffee is predominantly outside drink, it derives its utility from social, aesthetic and emotional role. Coffee does not enjoy such time connections. Tea is routinely prepared but coffee is not. Coffee is celebratory and tea is ordinary. Its consumption is probably prompted by its signaling value which may stem from high price implying exclusion of masses; unique taste which only connoisseurs appreciate; and complex preparation process signifies  dexterity in culinary skills (beaten or filtered or brewed).

 A certain mystique is associated with coffee. Coffee consumption in uncommon and it is this uncommonness which imbues this beverage with a unique mystique associated with a wealthy, refined and intellectually evolved class Tea is functional but coffee is symbolic. Coffee houses differ in their spatial, sensory and social meaning. Some of the Coffee houses sell coffee as an alibi to engage in either intellectually evolved serious conversations (business meetings) or promotion of friendship, gossiping to spend time  and social bonding (one of the coffee chains makes a proposition that  ‘a lot can happen over coffee’ while the other are offers pure sensory indulgence in the aromatic world of coffee. 

Arbitrariness, desires and different levels of brand meaning

We use language to express our ideas and thoughts. But language is not the only way of expression.  Both verbal expressions and visual images belong to a sign system by which meanings are conveyed and made.  Ferdinand de Sausssure and Charles S Peirce explored the areas of signs and called their approach as ‘semiology’ and ‘semiotics’.  Sign, which comes from Greek word ‘semeion ‘sits at the centre of semiotic theory. People use language to express their concepts and ideas, in a consumerist society, products and brands operate as a system of signs.  Brands and products are signs that we surround ourselves with to send out messages to others.  Brands are valuable for their instrumentality in consumer identity creation and expression. A consumer’s body is like a piece of real estate on which products and logos situate themselves. A lot can be deciphered from the overall constellation of brands that a person transforms himself into.  Brands in this scheme of things need stand for something more than the product or service they envelop. They need to enter in the realm of semiotics or science of signs to achieve value transformation.

There are two aspects of a sign: the signifier (gold) and the signified (concept-precious).  The meaning is interpreted by people as is determined by cultural code. So the term ‘gold’ is immediately linked with ‘precious/costly’ according to cultural norms and values.  It is through the enculturation and socialization process we learnt what to associate with a given signifier.  These codes are essential to interpret everything that we are surrounded by. But the relationship between the sign and signified is not intrinsic rather it is arbitrary (Saussure). The link between ‘status/ luxury’ and ‘Bentley’ is a constructed rather than inherent one. Although Bentley is primarily denotes a vehicle for transportation, but it connotes status/luxury.  This arbitrariness of meaning provides marketers with a fertile ground to imbue their objects with meanings that create desires and promote consumption.

An object is like an empty vessel or a container. Besides its physical property and performance it does not contain any sign value. But when it enters into socio-cultural world, it begins to acquire symbolic or sign value.  Secondary signification or denotation is inescapable. Therefore how an object is initiated in cultural space critical determinant of its sign value. For instance a color is a color. But not all colors are equal. Consider a color like purple which a shade between crimson and blue, but it is not only this.  In its extended meaning it stands for royalty, luxury, power, nobility, wealth, wisdom and creativity. But exact meanings of things vary across cultural boundaries. For instance, in China the color purple signifies spiritual awareness, strength and awareness and in Japan it stands for privilege and wealth. However in Thailand it is worn in mourning.  Imagine the vast possibilities that this phenomenon opens up for a brand’s to acquire meaning other than what it stands for in objective reality.

The semantic perspective is only one way of looking at an object (Eco).  An object like a pen or automobile can be seen from different perspectives: physical, mechanical, economic and social level. Consider ‘black dress’ created by Coco Chanel in 1920s from different perspectives:

Physical level: this refers to the physical properties. The materials used in this dress were materials such as lace, tulle, soft weightless silks in black color.  In terms of its construction it was slash-necked, short and diagonal pin tucks.

Mechanical level: a pen at this level writes and an automobile transports. The little black dress provided simple and comfortable body cover.

Economic level: this pertains to exchange value. The economic value is measured by the maximum amount of other things that a person will willingly give up for something. It is about choices and tradeoffs that people make.  In present economies, it is reflected in the rupees or dollars that people are willing to give for something.

Social level: objects can be linked to a certain social class and indicate status, distinction and hierarchy.  Like caviar and single malts indicate rich class. Also brands such as Rolls Royce and Harry Winston are linked to social status. Starting as a simple wear without any class restrictions, the LBD socially epitomized elegant, stylish, sophisticated women.

Semantic level: at the semantic level the meaning of a sign is ‘cultural unit’, i.e. the meaning of signs is culturally defined.  Here the object does not remain an object, rather it into enters as a  unit into a system of cultural units and forms relationships.

Branding is all about signs and signification. Eco calls ‘signification’ as the semiotic event where a sign ‘stands for something’. Consider the latest communication of Coke-‘open happiness’. How the brand has been achieving semantic transformation in what the brand stands for. The resistance that has been brewing up against junk food in general and some brands in particular makes it essential for the suspect brands to transform what their brands stand for. Coke is reinventing its fit with new emerging cultural paradigm where Coke is beginning to stand for ill health.

Brands, Time, Dissociative group, Core Customers and ‘It’s not for me’

Branding is an exercise in perpetuity.A good brand achieves timelessness by a transformational process by which a product is converted into a ‘construct’ of an eternal appeal.  Anything that exists in physical form or in imagination cannot afford to be a constant, for change is the only constant.  A product is pushed into obsolescence with the arrival of new products which embody superior functionality. Consumers switch to a new product for it offers better solution to their problem. Consider how long playing records gave way to cassettes which later were overtaken by compact discs. The new storage devices like pen drives are making CDs obsolete. This is due to progression of technology by which the old one is rendered inferior in solving a consumer problem (consider progression from manual typewriters to electric to electronic to computers).

Brands developed on functional identity appeal to consumers primarily for their ‘problem solution’ capability. This is particularly true in a business to business and technology centric scenario (Intel marketing its processors to different computer makers or a firm specializing in demolition of old skyscrapers).  The challenge for the brands in this category is to keep climbing up the technology ladder and updating the functionality of the brand. The latest ad of Colgate Sensitive toothpaste is built on the appeal of ‘two times faster’ relief. Apple has been moving up on the functionality dimension with its different generation of iPhones (thinner, lighter and faster). This has been true for top German cars like BMW (improvement that they introduced to make it the ‘ultimate driving machine’) and Mercedes.

There are brands which operate on emotional and expressiveness plane. This is especially true for conspicuous products which help a person express what the kind of person he or she is. In this sense brands act as conveyors of meaning. The boots of Woodland express the ‘outdoorsy and adventurous’ streak of the wearer and Nike (based on the goddess of victory in Greek Mythology) reveals a winning attitude (grit and determination).  Brands that derive their success from their expressive symbolism operate in the realm of imagination with very little connection with functionality.

Even for brands with emotional and self expressive propositions staying in sync with the socio-psychological realities is a great challenge. The ‘hip and happening’ (values in vogue) keep changing with each generation. The values that define consumers and drive their buying evolve with time. Accordingly the brands which succeed by ‘value appropriation’ need to evolve their proposition subtly. For instance Bata’s durability may not go down well with new consumers’ desire for style. HMT (‘Time keepers to the Nation’) reigned supreme for middle class for their ‘accuracy and reliability’ but Titan stole the show with ‘design’ appeal (watch became a means of expression) in eighties.

Some values appear timeless like rebellion, liberty, honor, beauty, peace and happiness. Values become timeless when people subscribe to them generation after generation. There are two challenges for managing value centric brands. First, the icon (person) used by the brand to represent its value must be changed with time. This has been very successfully done by Lux which is built on the value of ‘beauty (we have seen its endorsers changing from  actresses like Leela Chitnis to Wahida Rehman to Babita to Hema Malini to Aishwarya Rai to Kareena Kapoor). The icon representing the core value of Lux has been changing with time.

Second, social brands succeed by conspicuousness. People use them for their ability to express a given value meant to construct a social identity.   Brand’s core consumers who fuel its success can also become reasons for its failure. This happens when brand’s core consumers graduate on to a different class (non- core) but continue to use the brand or peripheral segments use the brand. This way the brand develops association with a dissociative group breeding seeds of disconnection with its core customers. Consider the following ‘the brand is not for me’ situations:

  • Fiat and Ambassador cars got inextricably linked to a group that new car buyers do not relate well with
  • Louis Vuitton’s bags with conspicuous branding encourages some customers but also discourages many
  • The aggressive marketing of a sports shoe brand like Reebok to non-sportsperson can diminish its appeal with hardcore sportsmen
  • Hawkings and Prestige pressure cookers which girls have grown seeing their mothers cooking with
  • Even a brand like Nirma is perceived to be undesirable by new generation because of its ‘Hema, Jaya, Sushma’ connotations

The latest reported disconnection like this is the case of Levis and Wrangler. Both  the brands are struggling to cut ice with Indian youth who perceive these brands to belong to ‘ fathers’ generation’ (which is obviously old and not so stylish according to their standards- dissociative group).

Symbolic brands are intended to negotiate meaning either for self construction or social signification. Two way interactions characterize this consumption:  meaning transfer from brand to consumer which is followed by a reverse transfer from consumer to brand. This renders meaning in a constant state of fluidity. The reverse transfer or pollination can alter brand meaning subtly rendering it inappropriate for the core consumer. This calls for a tight control of meaning by enforcing a stricter regime of endorsement and reach.

Symbolic brands therefore are faced with twin challenge of building acceptance and at the same time erecting barriers to consumption.


A brand is a perceived reality. It stands for ‘meaning extracted’ from the symbols disseminated by the sender. Critical to the success of a brand is the clarity and relevance. Brand is a symbol created out of exercise of symbols and symbolism. At the heart of brand building lays ‘meaning transference’. Typically brand strategists employ a variety of messages and media to build a brand but what is crucial to successful brand building is convergence. All signals create a clear brand engram (associative network in the mind). Divergence of associations in the mind is brand killer. Brand name is a sign the meaning of which is created in prospects’ minds. Symbols are instruments in the creation of this sign.
Confusion fails a brand. Anna brand has managed to evoke a phenomenal response. It is a case in the use of symbols. Express verbal communication plays a part in brand building but the dialogue at the subliminal level is more powerful (‘Aankhon Hi Aankhon Mein Ishara ho gaya’;’ Isharon Isharon Mein Dil Lene Wale’). Words convey meaning but symbols do those more powerfully and the beauty is that here communication escapes the scrutiny of cognition. Consider the following symbols and their symbolism which went into building Anna Brand:

  • Anna as person: his frail body, cap, simplicity, earthiness, spectacles and his presence against the backdrop of a huge Gandhi banner draws ‘conditioned’ response.
  • Anna’s dress: he sports ‘white’ (spotless) as against ‘black’ (blemished). It is ‘clean’ against ‘unclean’. It is ‘day’ against ‘night’.
  • Fasting: the term ‘fast’ is positioned against ‘feasting’; ‘self harm’ against ‘harming others’; ‘sacrifice’ against ‘self aggrandizement’; eating is ‘common’ fasting is ‘uncommon’; clearly it positions the powerful in a different lowly light. Fast is the common thread that creates a subtle mental link between Gandhi and Anna.
  • Ramlila Ground: ‘ground’ is against ‘high rise’. ‘earthy’ against ‘heavenly’, ‘discomfort’ against ‘comfort’; ‘humble’ against ‘arrogance’.
  • Anna Bands: these are tied to biceps indicative of ‘power’, ‘muscle’, ‘courage’ against the aggressor
  • Waist Bands: ‘fasten seat belts’ it is difficult time ahead, symbolizes ‘readiness’ ‘preparedness’.
  • Tricolor: In Mahabharata the discourse is about under which flag ‘you want to stand’: the right or the wrong. People assembled for the ‘nation’ not for ‘any party or group’, signals ‘unity’ against ‘division’; ‘transcending boundaries’ against ‘created boundaries’; ‘one identity’ against ‘multiple identities’. The flag: ‘higher ideal’ ‘ambition and aspiration’. Flag  held by hands in protests indicates importance and closeness and importance of the ‘goal and ambition’ as against ‘not holding’ or ‘giving up’ or ‘detachment’ (flag erected on ground).
  • Anna Cap: cap is headgear; head is house of mind. It symbolizes ‘particular philosophy or thinking’. The cap signifies subscription to ‘Anna thinking’ as against ‘Non Anna thinking’. Why wear cap: because now is the time to clearly show whether one is ‘with Anna’ because government is ‘not with Anna’.
  • Candle March: is ‘light’ as against ‘darkness’; ‘day’ versus ‘night’; light is used to ‘scare the creatures of the night’; creatures of night in mythology are demons and evil. Why march- to scare these off. March is movement; it is ‘progression’ as against ‘stagnation’; ‘it is movement towards the goal’.
  • Voluntary contribution: to contribute means ‘to be a part of’; ‘efforts made’ ‘share’ as against ‘not be a part of’, ‘no efforts made’. Contribution is required when the task ahead is ‘difficult’ or the opponent is ‘strong and mighty’. It is symbolic of a fight between two unequal: ‘government or establishment’ powerful and mighty. It is an opportunity to be a part of something not within the realm of ‘individual achievement’.
  • Raised hands and closed fists: fist symbolizes ‘grit’ ‘determination’ ‘strength’ ‘readiness to fight’ against ‘hands down’, ‘lose’ and ‘open palms’. When the hands are raised in unison upon a chant ‘it is willingness to rise up to a challenge’; ‘team spirit and togetherness’. This raises adrenalin. Fist is to ‘muscle up’ , ‘to collect’. It is ‘to scare birds or crow’ from the field.
  • Songs: the music connects to ‘heart’ as against ‘mind’. You don’t ‘think’ music you ‘feel’ music’. Songs and slogans trigger emotions and create bonding. Emotions elicit better commitment than cognitions. Rhythm and rhyme is ‘flow’ ‘movement’.

Collectively these symbols negotiate meaning at a deeper level and create a brand engram to which people seem to be connecting.