By anybody’s measure, Starbucks is a big deal. Operating over 30,000 locations around the world and flogging more than 8,000,000 drinks every single day, the world’s foremost coffee franchise is a blueprint for any business interested in global domination. Starbucks, clearly, know what they’re doing. Given the extent to which they have refined their formula for success, it’s safe to assume that this is not a company that leaves much, if anything, to chance. When you’re operating a machine this slick, any spanner in the works can spell disaster. All of this brings us to the baffling conundrum of Starbucks spelling.
Whether your name has three syllables or 33, the chances are that you will have fallen victim to the coffeehouse’s unique labelling method. The internet is full of hastily scribbled inscriptions that look more like they were written in elvish than any of the tongues of men, all emanating from what is ostensibly the world’s most successful coffee seller. Time and time again, stunned customers have to contend with “Jennifer” becoming “Guniffre”, “Marcus” turning into “Morkas” and “Thomas” transforming into “Taurus”. Some are barely recognisable as language. Others sound like they were ordered in Klingon.
Of course, Starbucks aren’t the only company that rely on hasty scrawling for success. However, for some reason, the problem of bizarre spelling seems to be almost entirely unique to the franchise. A quick scour of the internet for confused customers reveals that Starbucks is streets ahead of the competition when it comes to creative naming. But, despite the proliferation of weird denominations, there doesn’t seem to be a logical reason why Starbucks should be any worse/better than any of their competitors. And yet, the stats speak for themselves. Some believe that this is all a strange coffee coincidence. Others, however, are convinced that there is more to the story.
In 2016, the now defunct entertainment company Super Deluxe produced a video aiming to get to the bottom of the Starbucks naming mystery. As the clip begins, a single, luminescent coffee cup appears on screen, obscured by billowing plumes of smoke and accompanied by an eerie score that sounds like a ghost fell asleep on an organ. It’s all very Twilight Zone. A disembodied voice explains how, in order to understand the cause of the spelling errors, Super Deluxe set up an experiment involving an employee named Molly and five separate local Starbucks outlets. After gathering five separate interpretations of Molly, including “Molli”, “Mali” and, perhaps most troubling, “Mommy”, the team proceed to outline what is easily one of the most shocking, and yet plausible, theories behind the practise published to date.
Described in no way hyperbolically as “a frothy cycle of control”, an increasingly frantic narrator goes on to explain that, “Starbucks is the largest coffee chain in the world. Meaning that each year, millions of people all around the globe have their names misspelled on cups of Starbucks coffee. They take pictures of their butchered names and post them on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, wherever. And what do all these pictures have in common? Two things, a misspelled name, and that familiar green Siren, staring at you with her all-knowing gaze. That's right sheeple, you've been giving Starbucks free advertising for years!” The poor spelling is no accident. It’s all an undercover, covert marketing scheme.
At first glance, Super Deluxe’s theory, while intriguing, seems to be based on pure conjecture, rather than anything concrete. However, dig a little deeper and the evidence begins to mount up. In 2014, an unidentified Starbucks barista gave an interview to Cosmopolitan, where she stated, "I don't know if everyone does it, but when I asked my manager if she does, she admitted most Starbucks employees use it as a marketing tool, she said. Most people aren't going to post a photo to social media of a cup with their name spelled right. I just use it as a way to be funny, but now I get why people use it as a way to promote the business." This would lend credence to the idea that we’ve all been unwittingly participating in one of the most successful clandestine marketing ops ever.
Unsurprisingly, Starbucks have never confirmed the existence of such a fiendish policy. When asked directly to comment on the viability of the idea by Buzzfeed News, a spokesperson insisted that "We've never asked or directed any of our partners to misspell names of our customers for any reason," seemingly throwing water on the story. However, despite the protestations of executives, the continued existence of dodgy spelling accompanied by the growing influence of social media means that the rumours not only refuse to go away but are actually gathering momentum. More often than not, mad internet theories are just that - mad. However, every once in a while, one comes along that not only seems possible, but actively helps us make sense of the world. Whether you prescribe to it or not, it’s hard to deny that the Starbucks conspiracy doesn’t fall into the latter category.