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New word alert! This week Starbucks announced the upcoming nation-wide rollout of a jumbo size for cold drinks. The new size is 31 ounces and will be called Trenta, which means 30 in Italian. Canada’s National Post web site notes that the drink is about the same volume as the human stomach.

What makes this product important? Aside from a chance for Canadians to poke fun at Americans’ appetites, it’s another chapter in a truly amazing marketing story.

Starbucks forged its brand by insisting that its employees and customers speak a whole new language of coffee. We all know the three Starbucks sizes: Tall, Grande, Venti. (Most of us disregard the smaller sizes: Solo and Doppio, which refer to 1- and 2-ounce shots of espresso, and the off-menu but secretly available Short cup.) Today Starbucks is so huge that it’s hard to remember a time when these words seemed strange.

But recall that Starbucks, with its high price points and its largely foreign menu, was originally considered a brand for pretentious yuppies. Your average 7-Eleven coffee drinker found Starbucks strange, and worthy of scorn, because of their fancy attitude and their unnecessary imposition of European words. Why should ordering a cup of joe be any more complicated than “large” and “black”?

But once you learned the difference, you understood. A first-time customer who feels intimidated by Starbucks orders a Tall Coffee, seeking the safety of a size that rhymes with small. But as soon as the drink arrives, you understand that in Starbucks language, “tall” signifies cheap, and betrays a lack of commitment to the drink. Muster the courage to order a Grande Americano or a Venti Caffè Latte and you’re rewarded with a better cup of coffee. It’s a positive feedback loop that encourages loyalty. Your Starbucks experience improves each time you return to the store, as you become a more educated customer.

And now comes Trenta, throwing the whole planet off its axis. Unlike the other sizes, the Trenta cup is only for cold drinks, like iced coffee and iced tea. It unbalances the neat three-tier hierarchy that Starbucks has spent the last two decades drilling into our heads. A size that big makes the drinks themselves seem less luxurious; anything available in that size is plainly not a specialty drink.

So what do you get? A big soft drink in a plastic cup. I haven’t been in a 7-Eleven lately, but I have no doubt that I could get 32 ounces of sweet iced coffee there if I wanted to. The Trenta is exactly what customers want—and a complete betrayal of Starbucks’ values. It’s as if Starbucks were to begin selling hamburgers. People might want it, but Starbucks has never been about meeting expectations. It’s about forcing something unfamiliar into the marketplace, then convincing people they wanted it all along.

In meeting the American customer halfway, Starbucks is now a destination for a bucket-sized, gut-busting bomb of syrup and cream. The 31-ounce drink is sweet vindication for the anti-yuppies, who have been biding their time for years. Now all they have to do for a giant drink is say the password.

Which happens to be in Italian.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language

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