American Brands Taste Better in Europe, and the English Don’t Like It

Desserts at McCafe in Austria

Fact #1: There are more Starbucks in London than there are in New York (237-231). (NYTimes)

Fact #2: “After eight years spent setting up 63 French Starbucks stores, the company has never turned a profit in France.” (NYTimes)

Interesting. American chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks have to work harder to build a customer base in Europe. I’ve noticed this in small things and large, like the higher quality of Starbucks pastries here in England, or the fancy decor and desserts at McCafes in Austria.

The New York Times wrote recently about how Starbucks is redoubling its efforts to increase its market share, and maybe even turn a profit, in Europe. The article comments both on differences in business practices and strategy that Starbucks hopes will build its brand in England and on the continent. Challenging, given the economic downturn.

The business strategy is of course interesting, especially to realize that the result is that the offerings are basically higher quality here than in the US (sorry, friends):

McDonald’s, by contrast, has grown rapidly in France and in Europe over the years by fine-tuning as needed, like using French cheeses, mustards and meats; preserving local architecture in some of its showcase stores; and more recently, creating a cafe area in some locations to accommodate coffee-sipping patrons.

But especially interesting to me are cultural observations of what works and what doesn’t. For example:

Hello, my name is Jam. (Starbucks in Prague)

In London, an experiment is under way to take customers’ names with their orders and then address them by name when filling it. Participating patrons get a free coffee, but many others have lit up Twitter with complaints about bogus, American-style chumminess.

Sure, Starbucks baristas have many a time mangled names so easy monkeys could spell them. But hey, what’s wrong with wanting to know someone’s name?

Ah… right.

Darn that “bogus American-style chumminess!”


17 thoughts on “American Brands Taste Better in Europe, and the English Don’t Like It

    1. You have a point there; I’m actually currently writing a dissertation comparing attitudes toward privacy in Europe vs the US. So there’s a legit philosophical underpinning there. Even I (as a chummy American) remember feeling somewhat taken aback early on when Starbucks first started doing that, but I guess it’s such a norm by now that few people mind.

  1. I think Starbuck will have to work hard in continental Europe because they have to take the market share from street cafés. After all, you can only drink so much coffee a day and it’s a way of life to have your coffee at a sidewalk cafe. Things can change but much slower than what a brand hopes for. I know I’ll grab Starbuck’s if I don’t care to sit and watch the world go by :-)

  2. McDonald’s has learned much from its European operations, which are mostly led by local nationals. McDonald’s global restaurant design and decor is now heavily european influenced. The McCafe program began in Australia, and has now gone global. McDonald’s has gained local favor in Europe by sourcing locally, hiring locally and adapting regional architectural notes. Same applies to community relations — McDonald’s one-time PR head in UK had been Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary. I headed global corporate communications for McD’s until I retired, and was spending increasing time in cross-cultural learning. By the way, I remember one time walking through London for a day, bouncing from one Starbucks to another, there were so many. I started to forget I wasn’t in America…

    1. Thanks for the comment! This is really interesting stuff. I remember reading some bad press about McDonald’s in Europe in years past, but it does seem like they’ve been pretty successful at adapting their model in recent years. I used to work in corporate communications too (CSR-focused) and am hoping to get back into it after I finish my master’s, so I really find the topic fascinating. Thanks for the insight!

    1. Interesting! I appreciate the input. I’m sure it’s hard to generalize for all English people, but do you think your sense of personal privacy is a culturally influenced thing, or more a personal preference?

      1. It is a family thing. My mother, myself and my son are all private people. I don’t think it is particularly an English thing as I have friends who spill their business all over the place. If someone doesn’t understand where to draw the line in my privacy, for instance, we are on a train together and they shout they talk loudly about something which they don’t understand, I feel is private, it can actually ruin the relationship. This makes it sound as if I am really uptight, I’m not, I’m quite laid back. It is simply that I was brought up to keep certain things private.

      2. No judgment here, I definitely understand what you mean! I tend to be more of a private person myself, especially with regard to what I post and share on the Internet. I do still wonder if there’s grounds to say there’s more of a cultural tendency toward privacy in the UK than in the US or elsewhere, which is the stereotype, and where it comes from. For example shortly before I moved here I read this article in the Financial Times called “Don’t Touch Me, I’m British,” which was a hilarious read.

      3. I will see if I can find that it sounds really funny. Well sometimes when I hear people on trains and in the supermarket absolutely talking at the tops of their voices about really private things – I do think that if the British had a reserve maybe lots of them have now lost it. Do you think perhaps that the English have changed since mobile ‘phones and the internet? This subject fascinates me.

      4. Hmm, good point! It seems plausible, though I think that technology doesn’t so much change behavior as amplify behavioral shifts that were already happening. I’m reluctant to make observations without better research, but drawing inferences I might also argue that it could be a kind of cultural hegemony too… I’ve had lots of conversations with English friends I’ve met here about how influential American TV was for them when they were growing up (e.g. Dawson’s Creek, of all shows) and on the culture as a whole (someone told me the cafe culture didn’t exist—socializing always happened at the local pub—before Friends). As you can tell, I find this topic fascinating too! :)

        Here’s the article by the way:

      5. Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it so much I have shared it on Facebook and Twitter. I think that you are right about the effect American television had on English teenagers. My generation growing up in the 70 and 80s always seemed to socialise in couples. After Friends, I noticed how people seemed to gather more in groups of friends. It was almost as though the television series gave them permission to act as they secretly wanted to. However, as you say, without the research it is all assumption.

      1. Yes, that always did worry me a bit. I have not been far from crying, “No, hands off! That’s my grande latte!” And actually, I did have a scenario once where I went to Starbucks with two friends. One of them was on the phone the entire time. The other friend and I ordered and got are drinks. When we were all in the car, my friend said, “Hey guys, thanks for ordering my drink for me.” We both looked at each other stunned because neither of us ordered him a drink! Because he was on the phone and not paying attention he took someone else’s drink assuming we got it for him.

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