Friday, October 9, 2009

The Turkish Coffee Story

After learning that I would speak on branding at an international construction conference in Istanbul, I proudly informed my family about the honor. My 19-year old daughter was non-plussed, but immediately declared that I needed to try the coffee.

"Turkish coffee is the best in the world," she declared. "Everyone knows that."

Well, *I* didn't know that. So I filed this piece of useless information away and didn't think about it until months later when I arrived in Istanbul a couple of hours ahead of Mark Matteson.

Mark Matteson, author of Freedom From Fear, Freedom From Fear Forever, and the forthcoming book, A Simple Choice, was the conference keynote and responsible for my invitation to speak. The invitation was a surprise.

One day Mark called to ask if I would be interested in speaking on branding at a construction conference in Istanbul.

"Istanbul, Ohio? Sure," I said.

"No, Turkey," Mark answered.

Mark Matteson is one of the nicest people in the world. He always finds complementary things to say about people. I wondered what I did to cause Mark to call me a turkey.

After a moment of silence, he clarified, "You know, the country, Turkey?"

"Uh, yeah. Right. The place in Europe."

"And Asia. It's on both continents."

"Why me?"

Mark said, "The people running the conference need a speaker on branding, but don't know anyone who knows about both, branding and construction. They asked me if I knew anyone. I thought of you."

Wow, I thought.

"Branding in the construction arena isn't a big field," Mark added. "In fact, you're the only person I know who can cover both."

Whatever. I was still honored to speak at the conference, even if by default.

The day finally arrived when I would fly to Istanbul via London. It's a long haul. I boarded a plane in Dallas and arrived in London the next morning. I had a few hours to bum around Heathrow's massive Terminal 5 (the largest free standing building in the UK) before hopping on a jet for Istanbul, on the other side of Europe, 1500 miles away.

Heathrow's Terminal 5

When I fly to Europe I try to stay awake during the flight and first day. When I turn in the first night, I'll sleep soundly and will wake the next morning, largely without jet lag. By the time I got to Istanbul, got my luggage, and left security it was early evening. With the time zones, I had no idea how long it had been since I slept.

The conference host met me at the security gate. Mark was scheduled to arrive a couple of hours later. The host asked, "While we wait, would you like a coffee?"

I had just traveled 6300 miles, crossed eight time zones, over 20 hours, without sleep. Suddenly, I my daughter's voice came rushing back...

"Turkish coffee is the best in the world."

Like Pavlov's dog,I could feel saliva form in my mouth over visions of Turkish coffee. "Sure!"

And the host led me to...


Starbucks? Right in the middle of Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. And not only that, there are 73 Starbucks scattered across Istanbul.

Starbucks in Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport

To get to the Starbucks, we walked past a Gloria Jean's coffee house. There are 30 Gloria Jean's in Istanbul.

Coffee has been a part of Istanbul life since the 16th century. The Turks are quick to note that their's is a "coffee culture."

1878 Istanbul Coffee House

So what gives with Starbucks? Moreover, the Starbucks were serving Christmas blend in Starbucks' Christmas cups. Turkey is 95% Muslim (though Istanbul, at least, is very secular).

Wow, I thought. This is the power of branding.

Later, I did try authentic Turkish coffee. It was good, very good. It makes Expresso seem like decaf. What I especially liked was all of the ceremony and tradition surrounding it, such as the need to drink water to clean the palate before drinking the coffee, the need to slurp the first few sips, the lore about the way the coffee is presented (lots of hidden meanings), the fortune telling from the grounds, and so on.

The tradition and heritage surrounding Turkish coffee made the ubiquity of Starbucks curious. As a rule, local brands trump national brands in their markets. This is especially true for brands with a service component. After all, service is personal. It involves human interactions. It involves relationships. I was still trying to figure out how Starbucks managed to build its brand presence in Istanbul a few days later when it was time to deliver my speech.

Speaking in an international environment is a challenge. Most of the audience is wearing headsets, listening to translators. Speakers are urged to slow down for the translators. This is difficult for me. I tend to speak fast.

Humor doesn't always translate. Jokes guaranteed to bring applause in the States may bring crickets in a multinational venue. Stories, however, tend to work in any language. I opened with the coffee story.

"That," I said, "is the power of branding."

Given the cavernous size of the room, the blare of the studio lights, and the delay for translations, it was hard to tell if anyone was following the story. I paused for a second and added without thought, "But I like Turkish coffee better than Starbucks."

The room erupted. It was the most applause the staid, stuffy contractors, engineers, and architects gave anyone all day.

I realized that while Starbucks may have bought locations it hadn't trumped the local Ottoman coffee house brands after all.

An interview about me in a Turkish trade publication

An article about me in Turkey's primary business newspaper (I was told it was Turkey's equivalent of the Wall Street Journal)

Follow Up

After I returned home, I learned that every Starbucks in Istanbul offers Turkish coffee if asked. Also, Starbucks is operated by a local company in Turkey under license to the Seattle chain. Like the domestic Starbucks, the Turkish locations try to build local identities and relationships through the baristas who work in the cafes. So while Starbucks is international in scope, it tries to act local in practice, which is a good lesson for every company.

The company has done well in the Turkish market, but mostly among students, who consider it trendy. I think the chain also benefits from its American identity. The Turks seemed to regard America and Americans well (as long as no one brings up the century old Armenian issue).

I also think as a visitor I underestimated the strength of the local brands. It's hard to estimate the loyalty to the thousands of centuries old coffee houses tucked into out of the way streets and alleys carrying Turkish names. It's easy to see the green Starbucks signs.


  1. Thats a great story, & encourages to keep on self branding

  2. Matt
    I am so glad you finally captured that story in print.

    Whenever I can't speak because I am already booked that date and I refer my client to Matt Michel, my clients are always glad I couldn't show up!

    Matt speaks like he writes...with great fluency, insight and passion.
    The depth of his preparation separates him from 90% of the speakers in the United States...and now Istanbul, Turkey (not Ohio!)

    Mark Matteson -