How Starbucks Puts The Cult In Culture

One side of people drinking Starbucks coffee

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Ah the coffee shop. The perfect place to sip on a delicious, handcrafted espresso drink while studying, or working remotely.

It’s become a staple in towns across the country, mostly thanks to the rise of the mega coffee chain Starbucks and their coffeehouse aesthetic. However, serving coffee is only a part of what the company sells according to the hosts of Sounds Like A Cult, Amanda Montell and Isa Medina.

“Starbucks is about so much more than coffee,” said Montell. “It’s an identity, a community, a culture, and that’s why we decided to cover it on the show.”

The pair recognize that Starbucks has risen to a McDonald’s level of brand recognition. For example, at the beginning of 2022, there were over 34,000 Starbucks locations around the world. Less than half of those stores are in the United States. As Medina puts it, when Americans are traveling abroad and see a Starbucks they immediately think of home.

Despite having thousands of coffee shops scattered across the globe, they are all united under one company culture that gets a bit weird when looked at closely. For instance, the language that Starbucks forces on employees and customers alike. This is to give a feeling of exclusivity explained Medina.

“The special language that is used in Starbucks that makes everyone who goes there feel like they are on the inside of a secret code language,” she said. “Feeling elite, feeling Italian but also a little French.”

“Language and culture are intrinsically linked,” Montell added. “That’s where the cult like influence starts. You create this atmosphere that like, everybody who knows to use this language is elite, is superior.”

From calling small drinks “tall” to the company's secret menu, the Starbucks culture can be deep and complicated, which has attracted a cult like following. Announcements about the company's pumpkin spice latte make national headlines. When a collectable mug is released, customers will drive for miles to get one. Taylor Swift even collaborated with the coffee chain in 2021 to launch "Taylor's Latte" (a Grande Caramel Nonfat Latte) to coincide with the release of Red (Taylor's Version).

Hear the full conversation along with the history of Starbucks' rise to fame on "The Cult of Starbucks." Each episode of Sounds Like A Cult looks at the modern-day “cults” in our culture. The podcast is hosted by Baltimore author and linguist Amanda Montell along with Colombian writer, comedian, and actor Isa Medina. Find the pair on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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