November 30, 2012

The super-expensive Starbucks coffee from Costa Rica called "Geisha."

"We have loyal reserve customers who are interested in any opportunity to try something as rare and exquisite as the Geisha varietal," said Starbucks spokeswoman Lisa Passe.

Names, names, names. First of all: Lisa Passe. I love it! The name Lisa peaked hugely in 1960, when it hit #1 for female newborns. It crashed immediately after and almost no one names a baby Lisa anymore. It's passé. So Lisa Passe is a perfect euonym for someone passing off something outmoded.

Second: Geisha. From Costa Rica. Even if the varietal was already called Geisha, Starbucks did not need to adopt that branding. It chose it. Why? You emphasize that it's a particular coffee from Costa Rica, and you brand it with a word associated with Japan. What's worse than the geographic mismatch is the gender. It's a word that connotes a female catering poshly to a male.

Here's the Oxford English Dictionary definition, in full: "A Japanese girl whose profession is to entertain men by dancing and singing; loosely, a Japanese prostitute." Here's a long Wikipedia article about geishas. I'm not fussing over the details of whether geishas are prostitutes or not or how much power and autonomy they maintain today or in bygone eras. I'm just saying: What the hell kind of Starbucks branding is this?

Now, the product must be intended to appeal to women. High-priced items with a strong emotional, mental element creating the worth — they have to be speaking to women. But Geisha is not a word that should inspire females to hand over their money. You should be giving me money. A lot of money.

Does Starbucks assume its customers are if not dumb then free-floating in the present, unconnected to information of a geographical and historical kind? They're not really this dumb...



... are they?

IN THE COMMENTS: rhhardin said:
There's some risk that a Geisha Venti would mean blow job. 

74 comments:

dcm said...

Geishas haven't engaged in prostitution in a long long time.

Pogo said...

"They're not really this dumb...
... are they?
"

They re-elected Obama.

rhhardin said...

It has something to do with paper folding.

rhhardin said...

A drink called the Hiroshima would sell, and has that exotic popular Japanese connection.

Paco Wové said...

"free-floating in the present, unconnected to information of a geographical and historical kind"

Dunno, sounds pretty accurate to me.

Shouting Thomas said...

It's not surprising, Althouse, that the word "geisha" doesn't seem very positive to you. You've had that feminist chip on your shoulder your entire life. There was never any justification for that, but there you go.

I've known plenty of women who liked the things the word "geisha" connotes.

The anger that the role of service inspires in feminist women... what can you say about that?

Let me remind you that Dylan said that we all have to serve somebody. All men know that. It's mostly women who get pissed off about that. What does that tell you about women?

Shouting Thomas said...

And, to the question of why Starbucks would choose this type of branding.

Could be that the grim feminist era of slugging it out eternally for another inch of office space has gotten pretty fucking old.

The comforts of private life and traditional ideas might be winning out.

Pogo said...

Some hipster doubtless won a prolonged argument with another unemployed hipster that Geishas were part of a Costa Rican subculture in the early 1920s, as he'd proved in his Women's Studies Master's thesis just 3 years prior.

And a fine related rant, complete with a David Foster Wallace reference:
Hipsters On Food Stamps, Part 1
"The only thing the English grad is "qualified" for in this economy is the very things s/he is already doing: coffeehouse agitator, Trader Joe's associate, Apple customer ...and spouse of a capitalist.

...Name me one contemporary fiction writer who required his college training to be a writer, and if you say David Foster Wallace I swear to god I'm going to pumpkin your house. I think the only reason The New Yorker keeps shoving him down my throat is because he-- the guy, not his work-- is an academic's aspirational fantasy, a compromise between two worlds: mild mannered writing professor by day, brooding and non-balding antihero by night, a last chance at "I can be cool, too" for the late 30s associate professor who thinks that intelligence alone is insufficient reason to be labeled a man. My university is full of them, all reasonably smart, all pretending at cool through the hiding in plain site of cultural irony and political cynicism and pretend alcoholism. "I may be drunk, but why was my polling station filled with rednecks trying to take away a female's somatic autonomy?" says the endocrinology patient wearing a blazer with jeans as he nurses his second microbrew, trying to impress me with what kind of a man he could be in the Matrix.
"



MadisonMan said...

Separating idiots from their money is the American Way! Starhucksterbucks is pretty good at it.

Erika said...

People who don't know what a geisha is are not stupid, necessarily, just ignorant.

People who think those are two different coffees are not stupid, necessarily, just susceptible to marketing. Read Paco Underhill's Why we Buy.

Erika said...

Oh, and Pogo: somehow I doubt that that last buy, Mr. Beard, was not part of the cohort who re-elected Obama : )

David said...

Are barristas prostitutes? Probably some are. But a Starbucks customer concerned about exploitation or women (or men) might start with the ordinary garden variety non prostitute barrista.

Steve said...

Ten years ago they asked the question, "Are people dumb enough to spend $4 on a cup of coffee?" Of course the answer was some of them. So now they ask the question "Are people dumb enough to spend $7 on a cup of coffee?" The answer will be some of them.

Geisha is an exotic name that only raises questions in well read feminists. Since that is such a small group they didn't see it as a detriment.

Pogo said...

"Read Paco Underhill's Why we Buy."

Indeed a great book, Erika. Some felt it misnamed, as it is more descriptive, i.e., How we Buy.

I still think of its lessons even now.

Erika said...

After thinking a bit more: I suspect that the Starbucks marketing people were looking for a term that connotes luxury, indulgence and exoticism. Geisha fits the bill. There's even a hint of Japanese-flavored meticulousness and attention-to-detail. I doubt that most people know enough about geishas to have an impression of the whole servile-women thing, just enough to support the idea of something carefully crafted for your pleasure.

Then again, that book Memoirs of a Geisha was a big it among the middle-class women set a few years ago, so maybe they have a better concept of geisha-ness than I am giving them credit for.

Steve said...

rhhardin, I'll take a fat boy sized Nagasaki please.

Lyssa said...

AA said: Now, the product must be intended to appeal to women.

We may be weird, but something like that (expensive and marketed as something special for the cost) would definitely appeal more to my husband than to me.

Erika said...

Whoops, last comment I promise--I totally bungled my observation of Mr. Beard, whom I think was probably not an Obama supporter and who was the only one to see through the coffee bullshit. (I need some geisha-blend to get me to coherence this morning, I suppose.)

Expat(ish) said...

I was struck by the origin/name mismatch though the "service" reference did not catch my notice.

The $7 thing is just too obvious: of course it will sell. I suspect you'll see a $10 cup in not too long.

-XC

Pogo said...

Popular books are rarely read, though, mostly bought for use as totems.

50 Shades of Grey is the exception that tests the rule.

rhhardin said...

Fold a thousand paper cranes while you wait in line.

Erika said...

Eh, I dunno, Pogo. I never read it (not big on chick lit) but I think that MoaG was an easy weekend read that women actually did read and talk about at their book clubs. Books like what you're talking about are more like Guns, Germs and Steel, which even I, a voracious reader and anthropology major, didn't finish. Also, Hot, Flat and Crowded. Everyone bought that, but I've yet to find someone who read it : )

rhhardin said...

There's some risk that a Geisha Venti would mean blow job.

MayBee said...

MoaG isn't really chick lit.

I agree with this:
After thinking a bit more: I suspect that the Starbucks marketing people were looking for a term that connotes luxury, indulgence and exoticism. Geisha fits the bill. There's even a hint of Japanese-flavored meticulousness and attention-to-detail



wyo sis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MayBee said...

Starbucks' logo is a mermaid. A topless mermaid. Are we really concerned about how women will respond to the name Geisha?

ps. Yukon blend is not from coffee grown in the Yukon, or even North America.

rehajm said...

Does Starbucks assume its customers are if not dumb then free-floating in the present, unconnected to information of a geographical and historical kind?

Marketing often discovers this disconnect between what a word or thing means and a customer's perception of the word when associated with a brand or product.

Ex: American truck buyers associate 'Tacoma' with backwoods ruggedness. Anyone who's been to Tacoma knows that's not what Tacoma is.

Ann Althouse said...

"I've known plenty of women who liked the things the word "geisha" connotes."

As the name of a product, it's a product that caters to men and is bought by men. That's why I said "But Geisha is not a word that should inspire females to hand over their money. You should be giving me money. A lot of money."

Think it though and notice where humor appears before doing your knee-jerk feminists-are-terrible routine.

Erika said...

Maybee--that's probably the case; my own person definition of chick lit is a bit broader than the industry's, which I suppose denotes stuff like The Devil Wears Prada. In my mind, if it has a pink cover with a picture of a woman and it's fiction and primarily about relationships, it's chick lit. Probably not fair and probably offensive to some people, but, well, shrug. I acknowledge not having read it and completely judged it by its cover and by which women of my acquaintance raved about it, which tells me a lot about books.

Interestingly: I just looked up the wiki on that book, and apparently the author was sued by the retired geisha with whom he worked during his research. Not only did he not keep her anonymous as was agreed, there was a bit of an interview in which she claimed that he had completely misrepresented geisha culture. She makes a strong distinction between women who "pleasure" men (prostitutes/courtesans) and women who "entertain" men (geishas). She also claims that servility and submissiveness is not a hallmark of geisha culture, and that geishas were traditionally among the wealthiest and most independent women in Japan.

Patrick said...

From Pogo's link:

Imagine a large corporate machine mobilized to get you to buy something you don't need at a tremendously inflated cost, complete with advertising, marketing, and branding that says you're not hip if you don't have one, but when you get one you discover it's of poor quality and obsolete in ten months. That's a BA.

Although maybe I should think it through before doing my knee jerk universities are terrible routine!

Amexpat said...

Here in Norway, $7 dollar cups of coffee are a dime a dozen.

MayBee said...

She also claims that servility and submissiveness is not a hallmark of geisha culture, and that geishas were traditionally among the wealthiest and most independent women in Japan.

Yes, servility and submissiveness is indeed not a hallmark of geisha culture. They were trained in the traditional arts (something very important in Japan) and allowed to go to bars and drink and talk with groups of men in a way their wives were not allowed to do.

The main dispute with the subject of the book and the author is the way he described an auction for her virginity. She claims the auction (which broke records) was not for sex.
I have read her book, and she really did have financial independence, her own boyfriend, and lived a glamourous life as would a movie star today.

damikesc said...

Nice...the biggest customers at Starbucks hate to have it mentioned how brutally "1%" their behavior tends to be.

Geisha isn't a bad thing. I understand it is not remotely the same as "prostitution". Perhaps a Renaissance courtesan is a closer facsimile.

Sunslut7 said...

Ann, Of course Starbucks perceives their target customers as being logic-ly challenged. After all the Obama re-election campaign built its entire re-election program on the principle that the voters were incapable or unwilling or oblivious to exercising critical thinking or logic in determining their re-election choice. "Stupid Voters" is the meme.

So why are you surprised that Starbucks has chosen to go down this path? The words Geisha and the price of $7.00 clearly scream "We think you suckers will fall for our message." And, Ann, it pretty obvious to me that they are correct.

Ann, we live in the "Age of Unreason."

Ann Althouse said...

"Interestingly: I just looked up the wiki on that book, and apparently the author was sued by the retired geisha with whom he worked during his research. Not only did he not keep her anonymous as was agreed, there was a bit of an interview in which she claimed that he had completely misrepresented geisha culture. She makes a strong distinction between women who "pleasure" men (prostitutes/courtesans) and women who "entertain" men (geishas). She also claims that servility and submissiveness is not a hallmark of geisha culture, and that geishas were traditionally among the wealthiest and most independent women in Japan."

I think (based on skimming the Wikipedia "Geisha" article) that this is a branding dispute. There's an elite set that is prizing a reputation for nonprostitution (whatever the truth is) and others who want to use the word in promoting prostitution. And the groups have varied over the years.

Note that we have "escort" services, and these people will claim they are not prostitutes. They'll say you pay for the date, and then there's a separate interaction that is not for the money, but because they actually like you or something. See "Paying For It."

MayBee said...

I think (based on skimming the Wikipedia "Geisha" article) that this is a branding dispute. There's an elite set that is prizing a reputation for nonprostitution (whatever the truth is) and others who want to use the word in promoting prostitution. And the groups have varied over the years.

It's different even than that.

Geisha were highly trained entertainers and maintainers of the Japanese arts. There is almost no facsimile in the US to either Geisha or the training that goes into the traditional Japanese arts.

Take Ikebana, for example. It's flower arranging. But the various schools are so specific in how they teach it, you have to take years of classes to master the proper way to execute just that one form of Ikebana. The person who rises to become the master of the school (or type) of Ikebana is actually renamed and given the name of the original master.

Geisha had to learn all of the various arts- dance, ikebana, playing instruments, along with learning how to do a proper tea ceremony and proper dinner/drinking service. All of that before she could be called a Geisha at all.

dbp said...

I think that the "Geisha" name is positive to women.

I am not sure about the rest of the country, but here in the Boston area, grocery stores have Geisha brand canned seafood, mushrooms and fruit. Grocery shopping is done primarily by women and the brand is successful. Ergo, this brand appeals to women, or at least doesn't turn them away.

pfennig said...

Interesting discussion. Going back to the "Lisa" part, I am reminded that "Lisa" was the name given to Apple's pre-Mac computer.

Ann Althouse said...

"I am not sure about the rest of the country, but here in the Boston area, grocery stores have Geisha brand canned seafood, mushrooms and fruit. Grocery shopping is done primarily by women and the brand is successful. Ergo, this brand appeals to women, or at least doesn't turn them away."

Speaking of canned seafood, Chicken of the Sea has that sexy mermaid. I guess women project themselves onto the image that men would fantasize about possessing. The female shopper on some level thinks: that's me.

On that level, Geisha works.

There's also that Land o' Lakes butter lady and the Sunmaid Raisin girl... all those sex symbols that appeal to women.

Doesn't have the same vibe as drinking coffee out in a café.

And again: coffee doesn't seem at all Japanese.

MayBee said...

Lisa is also very close to Liza, as in Liza Dalby, a western woman who trained as a Geisha and wrote about it.

Here through the Althouse portal, for people who want to know more than whether they are prostitutes:

Geisha, A LifeA memoir by Mineko Iwasaki (the inspiration for Golden's book)

Geisha by Liza Dalby. Nonfiction

MayBee said...

Speaking of canned seafood, Chicken of the Sea has that sexy mermaid.

Yeah. So does Starbucks. Although the current iteration is not that sexy.

Noz pkr said...

Does it come in Decaf?

edutcher said...

Makes me glad I don't drink coffee.

Pogo said...

They're not really this dumb...
... are they?


They re-elected Obama.


If you believe the exit polls and the election returns, these are exactly the pseudo-hip, too-cool-for-words wannabes who would vote for some mulatto sociopath on the grounds that was what defined him as cool and would make them cool, too.

ad hoc said...

pfennig said:

I am reminded that "Lisa" was the name given to Apple's pre-Mac computer.

I think that early computer was named for Steve Jobs' daughter - Lisa.

Kirk Parker said...

rehajm,

"Anyone who's been to Tacoma knows that's not what Tacoma is."

Says one who's obviously never been here. ;-)

Dave D said...

They must have gotten 8 Obama voters in a row in that Kimmel survey? They were all too stupid to notice that there was only ONE pot of coffee on the table.

dbp said...

"And again: coffee doesn't seem at all Japanese."

This is true but odd when you think about it. People associate coffee with either places that grow it like Brazil and Columbia or places famous for consuming it like France or Italy. On a per-capita basis, Japan consumes less but more than makes up for it with its larger population.

Brazil would seem to have all the chips in terms of coffee identification since it dominates the production side and is second only to the US in total consumption. Germany edges out Japan for third.

Chip S. said...

Starbucks blowjobs? You're a little latte to the partay, Althouse.

Ann Althouse said...

"So why are you surprised that Starbucks has chosen to go down this path? The words Geisha and the price of $7.00 clearly scream "We think you suckers will fall for our message." And, Ann, it pretty obvious to me that they are correct."

Starbucks is a tremendously successful brand. It built the popular idea of buying expensive coffee in a pretty nice cafe environment. This was a huge commercial and cultural achievement, and it's not just a trick. Behind Starbucks, there are smart people appealing to nonidiots – customers with enough money to want to spend $4 on a comfortable, slightly nourishing break.

The word choices are important aspects of commerce, including the name Starbucks itself (from "Moby Dick") and the Euro-sounding sizes like grande and venti. There's some silliness and mismatching to it all.

Maybe "Geisha" says: We don't take any of this too seriously. Its just some casually fun stuff for people who are taking a break from work/shopping.

I don't think you need to say that Starbucks thinks its customers are "suckers" any more than other businesses that sell things.

Branding is part of selling a product. Why get bent out of shape about it? It's part of business. Really, on reflection, I think you sound like these hyper-lefties who think all businessmen are evil and out to get you.

They are just selling a product.

Chip S. said...

What Althouse just said.

Also, this "$4 cup of coffee" line is ridiculous. A 20 oz. cup of drip coffee costs about 30 cents more at Starbucks than at Dunkin Donuts. The $4 brews are made using an expensive espresso machine and a fair amount of labor.

I've wondered for a while why Starbucks in urban areas don't sell wine by the glass, to encourage after-work single people to hang out. (I suppose getting liquor licenses is a big hurdle.) Maybe they plan to market this Geisha stuff like a wine, with evening tastings. Add a couple more super-exotic coffees and they could start yapping about terroir. The idea wouldn't be the coffee per se, but the social event.

If they just try selling it like regular coffee, I think it'll flop. Too self-evidently hipster-doofus to be a true hipster-doofus product.

tiger said...

Stupid people do stupid things, like consistently spend $7 for a cup of coffee.

ricpic said...

I never had an exquisite cuppa cawfee. I feel so deprived.

Anthony said...

Even worse than the Toyota Tacoma is the clothing line named Hollister. What's really remarkable is the number of people who live near Hollister (almost definitionally nicer and classier places) who wear the label visibly.

deborah said...

The question arises, how is rh aware of the Starbucks serving sizes? Does he sometimes just need some 'me time'?

EMD said...

Geisha connotes luxury?

I suppose you could buy cheaper bamboo shoots.

EMD said...

Starbucks has already tested injuring their brand with the VIA line.

Chip S. said...

@deborah, the question that arose in my mind was why he thinks a bj from a Geisha would only cost 20 bucks.

Nathan Alexander said...

Here in Norway, $7 dollar cups of coffee are a dime a dozen.

Ooh, a math paradox!

TMink said...

I have seen this coffee for sale as unroasted beans and it is going for $28 a lb. More typical price for unroasted beans is $7. I have not been interested in purchasing it because of the price.

Actual Blue Mountain Jamaican coffee and actual Kona Hawian have similar price tags. I just go with Kenyan, which can approach $10 a lb for the beans, but makes a really great cup of Joe and is fun for celebrations.

Trey

Fred Drinkwater said...

Anthony:
Hollister, yeah. I was first exposed to it in some Facebook pics from my college-attending kids, and my reaction was "WTF? Hollister is now FASHIONABLE?"
I was later clued in by a niece, who was then working at Whorebercrombie and Fitch (her name for it) and who therefore was au courant.
OTOH, there's a line from some teen fashion exec, approximately "As a businessman, you don't know what fear is until you wake up each morning and remember that your life depends on the whims of a bunch of 14-year-old girls."
Starbucks has managed to thrive in a similar fashion business for a long time, so someone must be thinking clearly back at HQ. I've always preferred Peets, but I suppose that's mostly due to my early exposure while at Cal.

Kirk Parker said...

"I've wondered for a while why Starbucks in urban areas don't sell wine by the glass, to encourage after-work single people to hang out. (I suppose getting liquor licenses is a big hurdle.)" [emphasis added]

You assume wrong: all kinds of businesses manage to get said licences, including lots of mom-and-pop local operations that don't have the Big Corporate Backing™

Heck, to keep this brand-relevant, here in Tacoma one of my friends who owns a coffee shop which has had a beer-and-wine license since day one, is now operating a sub-microbrewery out of the same location.

Chip S. said...

Don't assume California is like Tacoma.

In 2012, a grand total of 25 new on-premise licenses were available for all of LA county.

Kirk Parker said...

Chip,

Good point; though I do assume the rest of the country is more like WA than it is like Greece-on-the-Pacific.

Crunchy Frog said...

I've wondered for a while why Starbucks in urban areas don't sell wine by the glass, to encourage after-work single people to hang out.

Probably a combination of store layout and employees base. To appeal to your average wine snob you have to have quite a bit of behind-the-counter real estate devoted to displaying your product and a staff conversant in wine BS. Your typical barista, if he's even old enough, is not going to be knowledgeable in expensive wines (unless he has rich wine snob parents - he's not buying it himself of a barista salary).

Chip S. said...

I don't think it would be too tough for those humanities BA's behind the counter to learn a few wine-snob catchphrases.

But in any event, I was just throwing out a possible rationale for something as seemingly crazy as a $7 cup of coffee. With Two-Buck Chuck winning a few blind wine tastings, maybe it's a smart play to try to convert faux wine experts into faux coffee experts.

bagoh20 said...

When you see people like those in the taste test, you have to wonder who was the idiot that though democracy was a good idea. As a Californian who is at the mercy of those people in the video, I would now much prefer rule by coin toss, or one of those Magic 8-ball toys.

damikesc said...

Behind Starbucks, there are smart people appealing to nonidiots – customers with enough money to want to spend $4 on a comfortable, slightly nourishing break.

Having a ton of money isn't the same as being a nonidiot. Sean Penn has a ton of money is a drooling idiot.

Lindsay Lohan is loaded --- both financially and pharmacalogically.

Charlie Sheen is rich...nobody confuses him with a MENSA member.

wyo sis said...

When we lived in California in the 70's Hollister was the sticks. It's only claim to fame was the Hell's Angels once tore the place up. Maybe it's that biker vibe.

Methadras said...

No, starbucks is using the Stuff White People Like syndrome to push this con onto them and they will eagerly lap it up.

Fred Drinkwater said...

wyo sis:
I'm inclined to the theory that it's the American teen equivalent of the Engrish seen on Japanese t-shirts.
I'd bet serious bucks that less than 1% of today's Hollister-wearers are aware of the biker connection, or could even place the Angels in the correct state or decades.

EMD said...

Sometimes, coffee is not coffee.

It's the idea of something else. It's basically branding.

Starbucks was envisioned as "the third place"

You have home, you have work, but where else do you go for a break from both?

Does it matter if the coffee is $4 or $7?

Jeremy Beales said...

Really, if anything, the Geisha branding is probably mostly about communicating credibility to the specialty coffee community that trying to sucker women with an emotional connection.

Geisha is an incredibly well known coffee varietal and has traditionally been very expensive.

I don't know what Starbucks paid for their Geisha, but for a point of reference Hacienda Esmeralda, the best know farm selling Geisha coffee, sold all of their Geisha lots this year for between $37 and $65 per pound for green beans. For comparison, the commodity price for green coffee, as of today, is about $1.50 per pound.

Coffee people have been obsessed with Geisha coffee for a very long time, as evidenced by this Times blog post from 2010, and all Starbucks is doing here is getting in on a trend that has been ongoing in the specialty coffee industry for going on 9 years now.
http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/ristretto-hacienda-la-esmeralda/?pagewanted=all

Jeremy Beales said...

Really, if anything, the Geisha branding is probably mostly about communicating credibility to the specialty coffee community that trying to sucker women with an emotional connection.

Geisha is an incredibly well known coffee varietal and has traditionally been very expensive.

I don't know what Starbucks paid for their Geisha, but for a point of reference Hacienda Esmeralda, the best know farm selling Geisha coffee, sold all of their Geisha lots this year for between $37 and $65 per pound for green beans. For comparison, the commodity price for green coffee, as of today, is about $1.50 per pound.

Coffee people have been obsessed with Geisha coffee for a very long time, as evidenced by this Times blog post from 2010, and all Starbucks is doing here is getting in on a trend that has been ongoing in the specialty coffee industry for going on 9 years now.
http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/ristretto-hacienda-la-esmeralda/?pagewanted=all

ampontan said...

"I think (based on skimming the Wikipedia "Geisha" article) that this is a branding dispute. There's an elite set that is prizing a reputation for nonprostitution (whatever the truth is) and others who want to use the word in promoting prostitution. And the groups have varied over the years."

If you have a chance, you might visit the university library to see if they have a copy of Jack Seward's "Japanese in Action". He explains it very well.

The problem is not really branding. If there was a sexual relationship at all it was as a courtesan for one person, rather than anyone who coughed up the money.

That is compounded by the fact that prostitution was not against the law in Japan until the 1950s, and a lot of it coexisted with the geisha.