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Starbucks trying to hide its name

At last, a powerhouse competitor has challenged the market dominance of the corporate coffee colossus, Starbucks. The name of the upstart competitor? Starbucks.

Well, actually, you won't find the corporate name on the challenger, and that's the point. With its own sales declining as more and more caffeine consumers reject the cookie-cutter corporate climate that the coffee chain epitomizes, Starbucks is launching a new line of stores that jettisons its own brand -- no Starbucks sign outside, no logos inside, and none of that generic blandness that makes each Starbucks store just like the 16,000 others in the chain.

The new shops strive to be the anti-Starbucks, with funky stylings and localized names that disguise the corporate presence behind them. The idea, says Starbucks' senior vice president of global design, is to give the stores "a community personality."

This is, of course, a deliberate consumer fraud, but it's also so clumsy and transparent that it's doomed to be an embarrassing failure. Start with the fact that genuine coffee shops already have "a community personality" -- and one thing none of them have is a senior vice president of global design.

Corporate chains can't do "community," can't do "funky," can't do "cool," can't do "independent" -- because they're not. One clue into Starbucks' inherent lack of cool came last year when it surreptitiously deployed a gaggle of market researchers into local Seattle coffee shops to gather intelligence on what constitutes "community personality." The spies didn't exactly fit in -- on each of their forays, they arrived as a group, poked around and jotted notes in folders labeled, "Observation." Then they'd leave without even buying a single cup of coffee!

Starbucks can hide its name, but its corporate nature will always out itself.

Jim Hightower, former agriculture commissioner in Texas, edits a monthly newsletter, "The Hightower Lowdown."