Dublin Starbucks coffee protest ran to a script worthy of ‘South Park’

Caveat: Publicity stunt played up old stereotype of bogeymen ‘corporations’

It is almost two decades since the animated television series South Park brilliantly satirised the predictable shrieks of anticapitalist outrage that dog the global coffee chain, Starbucks, wherever it goes.

Dublin valiantly tried to recreate the episode – one of South Park's finest – this week when the city's independent coffee shops launched a clever marketing campaign, thinly disguised as a protest against the ubiquity of Starbucks.

The campaign was sparked by plans to open a new outlet on Crampton Quay near Temple Bar, the 51st Starbucks in Dublin. The row exposed the enduring susceptibility of big brands to contrived David-versus-Goliath melodramas, and the media’s thirst for such simplistic narratives.

It also confirmed that the bristling Irish coffee market, which has exploded in the last five years, remains as frothy as a flat white with a triple shot of espresso.


The 1998 South Park episode, Gnomes, was pure genius. Mr Tweek, the owner of a local, independent coffee shop, fears for his business when Harbucks, a big bad corporation, comes to town with a new outlet right next door to his own.

He prides himself on his personal relationship with local customers and his nostalgic coffee pitch, “country fresh, like the morning after a rainstorm”.

The Harbucks executive, meanwhile, is a “big, fat smelly corporate guy”.

Mr Tweek launches a sly campaign to manipulate the local community and politicians into running Harbucks out of town. But his plan unravels when a bunch of business gnomes – who inexplicably steal underpants for profit – intervene. Mr Tweek is exposed for being as scheming and greedy as Harbucks.

To this day, economists and other social scientists routinely laud the episode for its magnificent sending up of some of the most vacuous, rehashed, just-add-water-and-stir old economic arguments of the self-regarding left.

It also has a pop at the just-as-mindless crusaders of the smug economic right (the gnomes, who ultimately have no idea how to turn their jocks into dollars).

With commercial reasoning worthy of Eric Cartman, the #FreeCoffeeDayDublin campaign signed up about 20 independent city cafes to distribute free coffees in protest at the ongoing march of Starbucks. The chain has opened more than 50 stores across Ireland in the last five years alone.

But doling out free coffee to your customers isn’t really what you might term a bona fide “protest” – not unless you do it while chained to a set of railings. It’s simply a common-or-garden marketing promotion.

Publicity stunt

Protests apply pressure. Upon whom was the giveaway supposed to exert leverage? I doubt Starbucks was troubled by the indies trashing their own operating margins for the day. Nor did the action exert any pressure over Dublin City Council, which grants all the city's commercial planning permissions.

It was a publicity stunt. All it managed to achieve was some emotive coverage for the city’s independent cafes on social and mainstream media. In a South Parkian twist, Fianna Fáil, ever vigilant for a bandwagon to jump on, chimed in to warn of the dangers of the “surge” of Starbucks in Ireland.

Lest there be any doubt, I say good for the “protestors”. It was a clever marketing ploy, playing up the old stereotype of the bogeymen “corporations”. It also slotted in perfectly with the dominant social justice narrative that modern businesses targeting millennials with disposable income must navigate these days.

But let’s not pretend that this blatant marketing promotion was anything more substantial or noble than that.

The growth of Starbucks – with its couches and free wifi and pretty ordinary coffee (big brands inherently must target the bland middle if their mass market products are to fly) – hasn’t crimped Dublin’s vibrant coffee culture by an inch.

Over the last five years, at exactly the same time that Starbucks was supposed to be “strangling” the indie sector, an explosion of independent coffee houses has brought a splash of colour to the city, even if a cache of the most painfully-hipsterish ones are as homogenised as any Starbucks.

According to research group Euromonitor, Ireland’s independent cafe sector grew by 8.5 per cent last year.

Coffee sales also tend to track employment trends closely. Who doesn’t like to grab a latte on the way to work if they can find the time? Unemployment has fallen from more than 15 per cent per cent in 2012 to 6.3 per cent now. That spells a major boom in coffee sales.

Starbucks has presented virtually no threat whatsoever to Ireland’s independent coffee sector. It has simply surfed the same wave of category expansion that has benefitted the coffee-flogging forecourt operators, the retail symbol groups and the (same as all the rest) indies.

The threat may come with the next serious economic downturn. Then, when the focus sharpens on price and service quality, we’ll see just how deserving of their customers’ fawning loyalty are the independent operators.

No matter what any protest leaflets say, customers never “support” businesses, even local ones. They transact with them. It’s a hoary old cliché, but business is business. The day you place it alongside charity or philanthropy, it’s doomed.

The indies, just like Mr Tweek, must compete along with everyone else.