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Starbucks chooses Belinda Wong to turn China into a coffee-sucking monster

Belinda Wong, president of Starbucks China, serves coffee to Beijing customers as part of the celebration for its 500th store in China on October 25, 2011. Photo: Business Wire

Starbucks has turned to a B.C. woman to sell coffee to China — a land where tea has been tyrant for thousands of years.

The 42-year-old coffee company chose Belinda Wong, a University of B.C. grad, to be president of Starbucks China with a mission to turn the country into a coffee-sucking java monster.
 
Wong says Seattle-based Starbucks is on track to reach its goal of having 1,500 stores across China by 2015, almost double the 800 stores it now runs in the world’s largest nation.

“This year, we’re planning to open 300. It’s a crazy time,” she says on the phone from her Shanghai office as she sips a Tall Americano. “We’re very proud and humbled by the fact that Starbucks is being embraced by the Chinese consumer.”

Getting a mouse called Starbucks to climb a mountain called China is the easy part of Wong’s job.
 
The hard part is persuading the mountain to let itself be climbed by the mouse.

Tea core to Chinese culture

Tea has been core to Chinese culture for ages.

“The first cup moistens my lips and throat,” Tang Dynasty poet Lu Tong wrote of tea in the ninth century.“The sixth cup calls me to the realm of immortals.”

Starbucks appears to face a huge task in getting China to give the bean a chance. But Paul French, an expert on China’s retail scene, says Starbucks need not convert China to a coffee culture to succeed.

“It’s not about selling coffee — it’s about selling a lifestyle of status and aspiration,” says French, chief China market strategist with Mintel, a research and intelligence firm.

“Arguably, few of the beverages sold at a Chinese Starbucks taste much of coffee — they’re milky, sweet, foamy, chilled. It’s rare to see anyone buying an espresso or serious caffeine hit in China,” French says.
 
“To be in Starbucks is an act of self-expression, of showing you can afford it, can enjoy it — an international expression.”

One of Wong’s key challenges is to nurture her brand’s global cool without trying to force a foreign ­lifestyle down Chinese throats. The company’s approach has been to accommodate Chinese consumer differences while preserving its brand integrity.
 
Like the Communist party motto of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Starbucks China is selling caffeine reflecting Chinese consumer quirks.

Chinese customers want to hang out in Starbucks longer than North Americans as they dine, talk with friends or do ­business.

Larger stores

As a result, Starbucks’ stores in China are larger than the North American average, Wong says.

“When people first come to Starbucks, it’s a social destination,” she says.

“We have a lot more tables for our customers. Our stores are quite different — we can’t follow the North American strategy.”

Starbucks China has done well by nurturing the image of its stores as “a third place” for people to come together, French says.
 
“[It’s] somewhere between home and office as homes are invariably small in ­China and offices invariably old and a bit rubbish,” he says.
 
Starbucks has also crafted a menu to appeal to Chinese tastes — and not all of them are coffees. A few summers ago, the company rolled out a Black Sesame Green Tea Frappucino.

In recent weeks, Starbucks China’s Shanghai R&D centre created a Chestnut Macchiato to mark the Chinese New Year.
 
“Chestnuts are the food you grow up with as a snack in China,” Wong says. “It resonates and brings back warm memories for a lot of people.”
 
Starbucks counts itself lucky to have found Wong — who herself blends Asia, America and Canada — to lead its growth in China.

Wong spent most of her childhood in Hong Kong. When she was 12, her family moved to Yakima, Wash.

While visiting B.C., her family fell in love with Vancouver and decided to move here. Wong, who was attending college in the U.S., transferred to UBC.

Wong had her first encounter with Starbucks during her university years.

She was walking along Robson Street and saw the two Starbucks stores at Thurlow that used be kitty corner to each other. She entered the larger store.

“I was a little intimidated at the beginning. I didn’t know anything about coffee,” she says.

“A barista started chatting to me and people were interacting. It was quite sexy.”

In 1992, she graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce.

“I left Vancouver the day after I ­graduated and went back to Hong Kong without a job,” she says.

“I wanted to experience the life of Asia.”


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