Skipping Starbucks: Stigma and Shame Surround Ubiquitous Luxury Trademarks during the Recession
At the beginning of the recession, New York grand dames, fearful that their lavish spending habits might prove shameful in these difficult economic times, began scurrying out of Tiffany’s with baubles hidden in brown paper bags. One story holds that around Christmas last year, Kathy Fuld, wife of Lehman Brothers Dick Fuld, asked sales clerks at Hermes to put purchases into plain white shopping bags, instead of their famous orange ones.1 This phenomenon nicknamed “luxury shame” or “stealth wealth” saw the affluent hiding their purchases in an effort not to seem boastful of their wealth while others suffered massive job losses.2
Forbes even ran an article describing conspicuous consumption as “gauche,” and offering tips on how to “stealth shop.”3 One of their tips: “If a person buys a monogrammed Gucci handbag, or diamond earrings shaped like Chanel’s double Cs, everyone knows where she made the purchase. If, instead, she chooses one of Bottega Veneta’s braided satchels…which has no visual branding, she doesn’t look like she’s showing off.”4
As the old adage goes, one man’s “visual branding” is another man’s trademark. A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, design or a combination of those which allows consumers to distinguish the goods of one merchant from those of another. Trademarks can be so powerful that counterfeiters across the globe labor long and hard to stitch logos onto fake handbags and clothes. The buyers of these counterfeit goods purchase them for many reasons: because they think they’re the real deal, because they’re trying to fool their friends, because they need a souvenir from Canal Street.
Amazingly, trademarks like the ones belonging to Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Apple, and Disney are worth billions of dollars but are, in essence, nothing more than squiggles on a page. In the United States, trademarks are vigorously protected by the Lanham Act.5 Internationally, the Madrid Agreement serves as a system for the international registration of trademarks.6
An interesting phenomenon during this recession is not an increase in lawsuits over these trademarks, but rather, a change in consumers’ psychological responses to them. Million-dollar trademarks are losing their value not because of infringement by counterfeiters, or a perceived loss of quality in the goods, but because they have become psychologically undesirable to see.
Like any good trend, this too has trickled down from the affluent socialites to the middle class who so eagerly imitate them. Recently, Starbucks scraped its iconic name and symbol off the windows and cups in one of its Seattle stores and renamed the store 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.7 While Starbucks still owns the locale, the goal is to give the store more of a neighborhood feel, which is currently more appealing to middle class consumers. Carting around a Starbucks cup which loudly announces to the world that you paid $5 for a cup of coffee is considered tacky and wasteful.
Let’s hope this is one trend which will soon fade away. The value of trademarks is that they allow consumers to easily identify quality goods, and therefore reward industries which produce items of very high quality, by spending money on purchasing those items.
1 Maureen Dowd, Mind, Body and Organic Martinis in Miami Beach, N.Y. TIMES, Jan. 18 2009 at
2 The wealthy turn stealthy as economy weakens, The Associated Press, Jan. 27, 2009.
3 Lauren Sherman, Ten Ways to Buy Luxury, Discreetly, FORBES.COM, Nov. 10, 2008.
5 15 U.S.C. 22.
6 Madrid Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Marks art. 1, Apr. 14, 1891, revised, July 14, 1967, 828 U.N.T.S. 389.
7 Steve Johnson, Stealth Starbucks: Seattle-based coffee giant opening neighborhood shops in disguise, Chicago Tribune, July 17, 2009.