Starbucks in Italy: cultural exchange or tradition loss?


The crashing journey falls into a bigger ongoing reflection where the line between business freedom and damaging tradition of Starbucks brand is blurred.

The relationship between Italy and Starbucks runs deeper than expected. The first Starbucks of its name was founded in 1971, limiting its operation in selling coffee beans. The company’s fate took a turn when in 1983 Howard Schultz joined the company. He is the person who built the brand as we know it today. The inspiration? Italy.

Italian coffee culture originates in Venice. It started in the 16th century with the import of the product through the port and later in 1720, with the opening of the first coffee shop. Other inventions pioneered and fostered the creation of a culture of its own; setting Italy apart from any other country in the world. In 1901 Luigi Bezzera created the espresso coffee machine and 1933 Alfonso Bialetti the Moka Express. These two, in particular, made the product available and accessible at every corner to the masses, shaping new consumers’ habits.

Since then, the country has kept its own distinctive identity. The national protectiveness of coffee culture against outsiders is best exemplified by the Italian author, Italo Calvino. In 1959, during a trip to the US, he wrote: “Sure, I’m happy when I can drink a coffee Italian-style, but I struggle to explain to Americans the feeling of uneasiness that this kind of places provokes in me.” To put it another way, the emic perspective is hard to be expressed to non-Italians. Yet it creates today an unspoken shared sentiment of rejection towards international chains.

Caffè Florian, the first opened in Venice, started as an unofficial meeting space for exchanges. This idea is at the very core of the Italian coffee experience. As well as being the motivation for Howard Schultz’s rebranding of Starbucks. The CEO was struck by inspiration during a trip to the city of Milan. Then, he decided to merge the Italian experience with Americans’ taste and way of life. Hence, the focus on creating personalized drinks and a short preparation time.

Both Starbucks branches and the Italian coffee shops are common landmarks and part of a daily lifestyle. Yet the giant at an apparent advantage with an established global presence was very cautious in opening in Italy and only in 2018 did so. The answer for such a long wait very much comes down to cultural differences, acting as deterring agents.

Market newcomer’s success often comes from the ability to identify customer needs. Only in recent years, there have been signals of openness from various segments of Italian consumers. Thus, creating the perfect business opportunity. The move to open the first branch in Milan is the perfect marketing strategy. The city has a reputation for being a business mecca, with savvy entrepreneurs and a strong international tourism identity. In other words, establishing both a strong customer base, familiar with the brand to boost sales and initially helping establish trust with the unacquainted through WOM.

The question arises: what does it mean for Italian coffee culture? Since its opening, new locations have been inaugurated such as in Turin or set to, in Rome. A clear sign of the business growing and finding success. Parallelly, traditional coffee shops still have kept their critical presence. In other words, the two have seemed to coexist so far.

The expansion plan seems to be carefully planned out, with a focus on cultural sensitivity and establishing loyalty. The failed venture in Australia could have served as a rehearsal for their growth in Italy; the country with iconic coffee culture and where Starbucks’ inspiration came from.

Naturally, what we are witnessing are the short-term effects. Regardless of opinion, it is undeniable that every business has the right to open. Equally, in Italy, many international brands have already established themselves from the F&B industry and outside it, namely fashion brands.

At the core of Starbucks remains the focus on cultivating the coffee experience. Its reputation for not being authentic could be sufficient to create a perceived difference in the marketplace, develop different positioning and avoid disambiguation. Furthermore, regardless of which establishment one chooses, the very culture underneath will still exist. It would be an overstatement, for a single new market entrant to wipe an entire food culture, strong as the one in Italy.

Di Marcotrigiano Nazarena



Marcotrigiano Nazarena

Studentessa universitaria poliglotta all’estero. Amante dell’arte, cultura e sperimentazione in nuovi progetti. Nel tempo libero rifletto in formato scritto su argomenti relativi alla cultura popolare e questioni sociali. Il tutto per stimolare e prendere parte ad un dibattito costruttivo.


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