Music Cue: McDonald's Challenges the Coffee King

NPR's Scott Simon reflects on the noble battle between Starbucks and McDonald's for the hearts and minds, and wallets, of American consumers.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, in the wake of the New Hampshire primary, it became clear that for most of the year, much of America, even the world, will be gripped by a fierce rivalry.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent; loyalties will be tested. People will be asked to rise above preconceptions. Both sides are well funded. Both, at one time or another, have been considered prohibitive favorites, suffered unexpected reverses and are trying to rebound. Who will prevail: Starbucks or McDonald's?

This week, McDonald's announced it will install coffee bars in many of its locations, serving the kind of sweet, frothy coffee-accented drinks that turned Starbucks from a funky local roaster into a worldwide beverage, music, books and style colossus. McDonald's is even hiring baristas, the Italian word for bartender, which Starbucks borrowed for a title to bestow on the people behind their counters who whip and froth.

Now in a sense, McDonald's decision is a response to what Starbucks did several years ago when it began to put instantly available portable food on its shelves. So now, you can get food fast at a coffee house and soon, you'll be able to get a half-caf skinny pomegranate latte at a fast food place.

Now, you have to be careful about making comparisons between politics and the retail food business. But please, let me rush in. Both are retail enterprises. If the public doesn't buy what they have for sale, they have to sell something else or the public will find someplace or someone else. A few years ago, Starbucks saw that people who wanted coffee in the middle of the day but couldn't get a fast snack might be tempted to go someplace like McDonald's. And now, McDonald's has determined that people who want a snack but also a fancy frothy coffee drink might go someplace like Starbucks. So, two different enterprises begin to feature some of the same-sounding products and even some of the same language.

Political candidates who may have wildly different ideas studied the same public opinion polls, which may be why candidates who have opposing views begin to express them in the same language, deploying code words like hope and change to describe policies that have as much in common as a Quarter Pounder and a half-caf.

There's been a wide range of impressive candidates in this presidential election season, representing a variety of experience and opinions. But as the campaign goes on and the choices narrow, we are more likely to hear different voices saying the same thing: Vote for hope, vote for change - whatever that is. And if you don't like that, I'll come up with something else.

(Soundbite of song, "Merry-go-Round")

Mr. PETE SEEGER: (Singing) The donkey is tired and thin. The elephant thinks he'll move in. They yell and they fuss, but they're not fooling us. They're sisters under the skin. Because it's the same old merry-go-round, which one will you ride this year? The donkey and elephant bob up and down on the same old merry-go-round.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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