Selling Water to the Fish. Can Starbucks Make Italians Buy Its Coffee?

Written by Artur Kornienko

If you have an idea, he will put that in words and spread it.

August 8, 2016

When Starbucks didn’t manage to conquer Italian market, it received a lot of media coverage on the subject of how to do (and not) International expansion. It was all good until this year Seattle chain of coffee bars announced it will come back with revised marketing strategy. This is why we decided that this case study deserves to be in the spotlight of our blog. After all, we devoted huge chunk of the blog to analyzing international marketing mistakes and Starbucks surely did some. Let’s briefly recap some of them.

When in Rome..

It is well known fact that Italy is a coffee nation. They know how to prepare it, they know how to serve it, they know how to enjoy it. Plus, pretty much everything that surrounds coffee culture is named in Italian or at least made sound like it is (case in point: frappucino) For this reason we are drinking caffe latte instead of “milk coffee”.

In fact, Starbucks was inspired by the Italian coffee shops after its founder Howard Schultz traveled there. The idea was to bring that unique Italian vibe and atmosphere to the American soil. That’s why even the names of Starbucks coffee sizes (grande, venti) are in Italian. So why would locals buy some foreign knock-off of their favourite drink when they can get an authentic one right behind the corner?


One espresso please!

Starbucks offers not only coffee but also a plenty coffee derivatives. This fact didn’t exactly sit well with Italians, which doesn’t take derivatives seriously (if at all). In fact, most locals opt for espresso when having a coffee break. As my Italian friend noted: “When you enter coffee bar and say – “un caffé perfavore” – you are served 100% with an espresso”. As for the Starbucks, it has never been famous for this type of coffee.

Too soft

While being an international brand, Starbucks has to go for certain compromises. F.e. in order to satisfy general consumer taste, coffee is only somewhat strong. This again, is not really welcomed by Italians who value authenticity of their favorite drink above all.

Expensive taste

Starbucks prices its coffee above average level. An average price of the cup would be somewhere around 3 € when in most of the Italian bars you can get it for about 1 €. Needless to say, it was another big turn-off. This year Starbucks announced that it will turn its eye to Italy with humility and respect in 2017. Meaning that Seattle company will make another attempt to gain a foothold in Italy. This leaves us with two questions: 1. Why again? 2. Will it take off?

More than a coffee

Throughout these years Starbucks became more than just a coffee shop. It doesn’t simply sell coffee, it provides coffee experience. Many people go Starbucks to discuss business, work or simply escape big city life. (I guess the fact that I am writing this piece in Starbucks speaks for itself). And this is the unique selling proposition that can actually work in Italy. This is due to the fact that Italians drink coffee at the bar counter and most of the establishments are quite small yet welcoming. Plus, if you think of the increased number of out-of-home workers and freelancers who need some cozy place to work from, it becomes clear that Starbucks might have a second shot in Italy.

Sure thing

In our age of increasing globalisation people often seek for standardized experience, especially when traveling. They want to get a sure thing: same product as they tried before and the place that they enjoyed before. How many of us went to McDonald’s instead of some unknown cafe because we already knew what we want and didn’t want to waste time looking for a right place?


Many companies tried (to the different extent) to copy Starbucks. Even in Italy there are coffee chains who offer somewhat similar experience. Of course they may be better adapted to the national coffee drinking habits but Starbucks is a world-wide famous brand. It is that strong that some people may see it cool and foreign and naturally desire to be a part of it.

He is what Quora users have to say about Starbucks’ expansion into Italy.

Source: Quora

So, Starbucks will have a 2nd run to try and convince Italians to buy coffee that was inspired by their own culture. No doubt, on the surface it looks kind of ridiculous. But at the same time there is a chance for success. The question is, have Starbuck’s marketers found that market conquering selling proposition?

Expanding your brand overseas is no easy task for sure. In these matters it is always good to work with people who know how to approach international market. Here at GFluence we help various businesses with executing their international SEO strategy to its fullest potential. See the full spectrum of services that we provide for you.

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