Sunday, December 23, 2007

Cafe Déjà vu

One of my favourite spots in Bahrain is the little corner at The Coffee Bean in Juffair where I take my little Macbook, browse the net, do some work, read some magazines, meet friends or... simply sit back and enjoy their wide selection of tea, coffee and muffins or biscoti. It has to be either of the two because, well, dunked biscotis taste yum, and muffins are muffins after all.

Costas in the new Seef mall extension or the one in Adliya are other favourites and Starbucks in Juffair comes a close third, but since the place is usually very noisy I don't mind giving it a miss whenever I can. But all said and done, I enjoy these places for the sanctuary they provide in the midst of the hurly burly of life aka the average working week.

Hence, during my trip to Bombay and Poona, I had to seek out some of the local variations since none of my favourites have opened their outlets in India as yet. There is a talk of Starbucks making a presence in the near future but I've no idea as to when it will be, or if at all. In any case, I'll be curious to know if Starbucks' entry manages to upset the coffee-shop applecart, which seems to be currently dominated by either Barista or Cafe Coffee Day.

And so, one Sunday night, when I realised that a particularly urgent assignment required my attention, I decided that the Cafe Coffee Day outlet near Ferguson College in Poona would provide the necessary ambience. After all, the previous night that I was in Bombay I had gone to Barista for a late night cuppa with a friend and I wasn't disappointed. There is nothing more comforting than sinking into a plush coffee shop type sofa and get absorbed in one's work.

And it was then that it occurred to me. Just like that. Right there in the coffee-shop while I was sipping my Assam tea and typing away my assignment. My eureka moment without the need to streak.

I realised that the reason why I felt a familiar tug while sitting in Cafe Coffee Day, or for that matter, in Barista, was because these outlets reminded me of Coffee Day, Costas and Starbucks. This sense of déjà vu was made possible because there was the same manufactured comfortable ambience, same type of desserts and drinks, same type of attendants with their well rehearsed glee, and even the same type of fashionable looking crowd sitting around as if they own the place.

Of course, this was not an original epiphany.

It was in Edinburgh, while sitting in a mall not far from Princes Street, that the idea first occurred to me. The mall had the same design elements that one sees in malls the world over, and even the retail outlets included the usual suspects one finds in high end malls anywhere at all. I realised that I could be in a mall in Bahrain, Dubai, Hong Kong, US or even... Bombay or Poona, and not necessarily, in Edinburgh itself.

Delhi based writer and consultant Anita Vasudeva described this phenomenon quite accurately when she called it a 'global samedom' in an article posted on Caferati. This sameness, one must agree, provides a template for the sense of déjà vu one experiences while dining, shopping and travelling anywhere in the world. For some people, it is a good thing because it introduces the familiar in strange lands. But on the other hand, despite the merits of retaining a homogeneous sheen to the urban landscape, it also takes away a sense of individuality and uniqueness that would, otherwise, characterise any city.

Maybe I'm being unnecessarily critical of these 'sameness-es' because, after all, there is a marketing rationale behind it, and this 'sameness' helps in maintaining a singular message in corporate communication vehicles and, also, in strengthening brand properties globally. Consumers benefit from this approach because it helps them identify their favoured brand and speed up their purchasing decision. So far so good. But does it really happen that way? Are people actually given more choices? Or are they limited by a few brands that simply possess the resources to have that massive reach? What about smaller brands that might be high on quality but lack the means to go global? Should they die on the altar of sameness while we explain their demise on the old Darwinian dictum: 'survival of the fittest'?

I'm not sure what would be the most convenient answers to these questions, but I couldn't help having mixed feelings while travelling around Bombay and Poona. An Indian in Bahrain had told me a few months ago, 'oh you could everything there now', and everything meant all the big brands that we are familiar with. My first reaction was, does that mean there is progress? It is true that Indians in India have embraced consumerism in a big way, and their shopping basket includes much of the same brands that people the world over purchase. I suppose the Indian in me would love to see more Indian brands making a huge splash and possessing the same popular appeal like, say, Toyota, Sony or even Coke? Perhaps that day will have its moment of glory and, maybe, Tata's deal with Land Rover and Jaguar might pave the way for Indian companies to go global more aggressively... who knows?

However, all said and done, will it be possible to retain some individuality in the process, at least, in customer service? Why should attendants in Cafe Coffee Day resemble their counterparts in Starbucks or Coffee Bean? Why should diversity create more of the same?

Only time will tell, and till then, let's enjoy the latte.

3 comments:

ammaro.com said...

wonderful topic. true; its actually a culture being duplicated the world over. take a teenager from bahrain and drop him anywhere in the "developed" world, and he'll fit right in with his starbucks, mcdonalds, sony gizmos, toshiba TV's and so on.

it does slowly kill off the individuality, which is really sad. when i visit another country, i want to see their culture, history, and so on. i dont want to go to another shopping mall which ive seen the world over, or eat at the same place i eat back home, and so on. i pity the cultures that leave all of theirs behind for this new 'globalized' marketing ploy. bahrain included.

Ashish Gorde said...

'culture being duplicated'... i like that phrase because, I think, THAT is what is really going on. It is sad but I wonder what one can do about it... everywhere in the world you go, it's the same same same labels and lifestyles... the downside of globalisation, I guess?

Alankrita said...

terribly terribly interesting...

The CCds and the Baristas ad the Starbucks evoke familiarity also don't they- and it serves to help alleviate the homesickness - a bit..

by the way HAPPY NEW YEAR