Signing For Latte: Starbucks Marketing to Deaf Coffee Drinkers

A mug showing two hands signing the word "Starbucks", and a sparkling gold star between the hands. Art illustrated by Jena Floyd, a local deaf artist.
Retrieved from wamu.org, “Nation’s First Signing Store Opens in Northeast D.C.”

This week, my Facebook feed, which includes a substantial amount of friends who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, was full of chatter about the opening of the first Starbucks signing store in the United States, in Washington, DC. It is just a few blocks from Gallaudet University, where I teach. For those who are not deaf or hard-of-hearing, it is hard to conceive of the effect this news has on the deaf community. No, there aren’t deaf people turning out en-masse on H Street Northeast celebrating the opening. The feeling within this community, at least in my view as a profoundly deaf person, is, “That’s cool! I’ll text my friend and we can have coffee at that Deaf Starbucks.” Which is probably the most likely reaction among most deaf and hard-of-hearing coffee drinkers, especially those who typically frequent Starbucks stores.

I like coffee. I’ll come by that Starbucks when I feel like walking to H Street from campus. But not frequently. I usually have my daily espresso at Peregrine which is a block and a half from my office. There are many independent coffee shops like Peregrine that have better coffee than Starbucks. The baristas behind the Peregrine counter may barely know sign language, but it’s not going to stop me from drinking their single-origin coffee and eating yummy cheddar biscuits.

That there would be excitement about improved communication access at a coffee shop chain — they sell coffee, not computers! — speaks to the power of the Starbucks brand. Just as Coke — a simple, sugary concoction of corn syrup and caffeine — has captured the imagination of billions of people around the world, Starbucks has built a cult following among people who need a jolt every morning to get ready for the day, and a midday pick-me-up to get through to the end of the day. Both Coke and Starbucks have developed huge customer bases and can develop marketing campaigns to appeal to specific segments of their bases. Including the people with disabilities (PwD) segment.

Marketing to the 15% of the U.S. who are PwDs is underrated. For most businesses, developing, marketing, and selling products to PwDs tend to focus on the functional utility of these products. In other words, these products appeal to the functional needs and wants generated by the PwD’s disability. Can’t walk and need to get from Point A to Point B? Pick a wheelchair that addresses the inability to walk.

More can be done to make marketing to PwDs something that appeals to their emotions and influences their shopping patterns. This is not a cynical ploy to manipulate the PwD market in the name of profit. It is an acknowledgment that we as a society do not know enough about the PwDs among us and the many ways in which they desire equal access to the things the non-PwDs take for granted.

Better knowledge of how PwDs like me shop and purchase products can give marketers deep, innovative, insightful understanding on what keeps PwDs from achieving the equal access they need. And enable companies to develop better products and services to PwDs. The Starbucks announcement this week is a step in that direction.

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