June 20, 2014 1:09 pm

The secret of Generation C

What tweens really love about Starbucks’ secret menu is not just that it feels a little subversive – but that it offers ‘customisation’

Last weekend I was strolling through central Manhattan with my daughters when they spotted a Starbucks. “We have to go there – please, please!” one declared. “I have to tell all my friends at school!”

I was shocked. Many years ago, when my children were tiny, I spent a lot of time in Starbucks, meeting up with other mothers. We fed our toddlers “babyccinos”, or cups of frothed milk, which Starbucks had cleverly started selling to appeal to the mother-and-toddler set. But since coffee is not defined as a childhood drink in western culture, I have tended to steer clear of the chain, as I do not want to inculcate an early love of caffeine in my pre-teen girls.

However, what has suddenly got my daughters so excited has nothing to do with coffee, lattes, cappuccinos or espressos. In recent months Starbucks has started selling a “secret menu” of drinks – which are not listed in public. Stories about this have gone viral among American teens and “tweenies” (or preteens), via posts on Instagram and other social media; there is even a secret menu Facebook page.

Never mind that canny Starbucks marketing experts have undoubtedly placed those links on social media themselves. Teens and tweenies think it is cool to drink concoctions such as Cotton Candy Frap(puccino), Grasshopper Frap or Rolo Frap, or drinks that never appear on any menu that their parents actually know about (unless they end up having to pay).

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Gillian Tett

As a piece of marketing strategy, this is pure genius. It is also a striking symbol of our age. Until the early years of the 20th century, the concept of a teen – let alone a tween – was unknown; in western society people were classified either as adults or children. The concept of the teenager sprang to life as consumer companies discovered a new market for their goods. They realised that the key to selling things in this demographic was to make teen brands different from parental brands, and a little subversive too.

Until recently, Starbucks did not seem keen – or able – to tap into the teen demographic. Coffee bars are generally branded as grown-up places where young professionals hang out; coffee drinkers are, on average, relatively old. But Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, knows that if he wants to keep expanding, he has to get creative. Since the 1970s coffee consumption has been flat or falling; today Americans “only” consume 23 gallons of coffee a year, half the level of 50 years ago. But Starbucks is convinced that it can use the 13,000 outlets that dot the US today to sell something else. Hence the secret menu campaign, which is now cropping up in other places too: Chipotle, Jamba Juice and even McDonald’s are playing with the concept.

What is perhaps most interesting about this tale is not simply that it shows that secrecy sells, but that the sense of individual identity is paramount as well. Judging from my daughters, and debates on the blogosphere and social media, what tweens really love about the secret menu is not just that it feels a little subversive – but that it offers “customisation”.

A psychologist might attribute this simply to a child’s desire to exert power but I suspect there is something else going on: children these days are growing up in a world where “personal choice” is considered paramount, if not normal. Back when I was a tween in 1970s Britain, middle-class children did not usually expect “customised” drinks. We lived in a mass-market world; our parents had seen rationing.

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But today, adults increasingly assume that everything should be shaped by individual choice – be that your flavour of drink, what media you consume or how you take a holiday. And that idea is being passed down to the next generation via millions of tiny, subtle cultural signals; such as those Starbucks drinks (which supposedly can be reconfigured into 87,000 different personal combinations). Today’s kids, in other words, are not so much Gen X, Y or Z – but Gen C, or Generation Customised.

Is this empowering? Or utterly appalling? I suspect it is both. Either way, after endless entreaties last weekend, I succumbed and took my daughters to Starbucks, where they ordered their dream (customised) drink – a Cotton Candy Frappuccino. This turned out to be a vile-tasting, shocking-pink concoction. But taste did not seem to be the point. When the barista produced it, he did so with a knowing wink. It was so darn pink that it made a striking photo – which one of my daughters duly texted to her friends.

By next month, no doubt a different drink will be considered cool, or maybe teens and tweens will be buzzing about something other than Starbucks. But if nothing else, the phenomenon is a striking sign of how plastic – and malleable – cultural symbols can be in our digital world, with marketing dollars at work. Even (or especially) with something as simple and ubiquitous as “having a coffee”.

gillian.tett@ft.com

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

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