Everyone Loves to Hate a Winner

Photo credit: WordFreak

I read an online article recently that listed eight annoying people you’ll meet in the typical Starbucks. My favorite, or actually my least favorite, is the guy who hates Starbucks, but ends up going there every day.

In Seattle we have no shortage of Starbucks haters, many of whom go there often. They have a long list of complaints about Starbucks, which they will happily share with you over a tall vanilla latte.

This principle is true for more than just Starbucks. In the music industry, in professional sports, and in politics, those who win often receive a high amount of criticism, seemingly just for being successful.

What’s the deal with that?

In the music industry, bands and musicians are cool when they are new and “undiscovered,” and they suck when they “sell out.” Both of these terms are problematic to begin with, and they are linked to unrealistic expectations from fans.

Here in Seattle, everyone loves the early Dave Matthews Band and the early Death Cab for Cutie. But when bands like these try new styles or otherwise evolve as artists, that is just not cool. Even worse is when they become more popular, and are able to support themselves and their families from playing music.

Somewhere around that tipping point of success, the critics would have you believe, those bands have “sold out.” The people who hate them now are the same people who loved them when they were up and coming. They are also probably the same people who spend $4 on their Starbucks drink while complaining about it at the same time.

A little bit of success is acceptable, but once you start getting in the mainstream, watch out—there must be something wrong with you, and plenty of people will devote their time and energy to finding out exactly what it is.

Of course, this principle is rich with irony, because in the beginning, the early adopters are the most supportive fans. But somewhere, the loyalty fades. The exclusivity disappears. Everyone goes to Starbucks and listens to DMB now. They no longer “belong” to the original fans.

Having two coffee shops is OK, but not one on every corner.

A European tour is OK, but not Madison Square Garden.

Wait a minute– you can pay the rent and health insurance with your art?

That is the kind of success that causes people to turn against you.

When Does Small Become Big?

Thinking about the principle that everyone loves to hate a winner made me think more about the tipping point of resentment. It’s conventional to think that Starbucks was cool in the beginning and now represents the evil empire with plans to poison us all with flavored syrup… but where did the transition happen?

Ask the average big-business hater to define when a small business becomes big (and therefore bad), and they’ll probably say something vague like “When they lose touch when their original customers.”

If you try to break it down further, good luck. It usually goes something like this conversation I had recently:

Me: What if your favorite local coffee shop decides to open a second store somewhere? Would that be OK?

Starbucks Critic: Yeah, that’s OK.

Me: What if they open a few more locations around town?

SBC: Yeah, that’s good. I can get my coffee in different places that way.

Me: What if they open locations in other cities, so that other people can enjoy their coffee and pastries?

SBC: I guess that’s OK too…

Me: What if they open even more stores so that they can scale up their operation, become more efficient, pay their employees more (while providing health insurance), and give back more to local communities?

SBC: Uh…

See how it’s problematic? For many people, whenever the business becomes successful, that’s when it has become some kind of pariah.

A Runner with No Legs

Have you heard the story of Oscar Pistorius? The word is getting out, but if you don’t know him yet, perhaps you’ll see him on TV this summer.

Oscar is known as the fastest man on no legs. He is a sprinter who happens to be a double amputee. He has a pretty amazing setup—these prosthetic limbs were designed to allow him to run instead of just work in an office or sit around being “disabled.”

Oscar has always played sports, and in 2004 he started running seriously. At first he competed in the Athens Paralympics with other amputee athletes, but then he decided he’d rather compete against able-bodied athletes. That was fine for a while… but Oscar kept getting faster and faster.

Earlier this year, the members of the International Association of Athletics Federations (an Olympic oversight committee) started to get worried. What if Oscar could really beat able-bodied runners? They decided to play it safe and ban him from competing. I thought this decision was sad but expected, because committees don’t usually like people who approach problems from an unconventional perspective.

Since when is a guy with no legs considered a threat to the fastest runners in the world? Basically, since he started seriously competing.

Anyway, there is some good news here—the decision to ban Oscar was recently overturned, so he is now eligible to qualify for the South African team and compete in Beijing this summer against everyone else. If he’s actually able to do that, you can be that the world will be watching.

Change Wii Can Believe In

Here’s one last example from the land of too much. Our three U.S. presidential candidates are currently falling all over each other trying to convince “average voters” that they are not that smart at all and are really just like all the common people.

The logic goes like this: forget about those degrees from Wellesley and Yale (Clinton), Harvard and Columbia (Obama), and the U.S. Naval Academy (McCain). Instead, let’s spend our time shooting ducks and eating hot dogs so that voters will think we’re like the rest of Americans. Sad but true—you can read this NYT article to learn more about this bizarre phenomenon.

For more unconventional insight, I read a thoughtful blog post this week that compares the three candidates to video game consoles. Barack Obama is the Nintendo Wii—interesting, promising, different, perhaps a bit untested. Hilary Clinton is the PS3—you’re supposed to like her just because you liked the PS2, even if the PS3 isn’t as good as the competition. John McCain is the original Game Boy—a one-time maverick who gradually became like everything / everyone else in the industry.

But apparently none of the three of them are allowed to be considered too smart or too ambitious, even though politics by nature requires a great deal of ambition. That would scare off the swing voters, who are looking for someone who can win—but not by too much.


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  • leukothea says:

    The tipping point between appreciation and resentment may come when the company is thought to defend its brand too aggressively, as in this article about Starbucks requesting that the Rat City Roller Girls change their team logo.

    The feeling engendered by this and similar articles is that the lawyers for Starbucks are humorless, soulless, out-of-control autocrats who would legislate away the very idea of fun if they had the chance and if it infringed upon the brand.

    But of course, aggressive defense of the brand is a requirement for modern corporations. Take that away and they wither and die.

    It seems that the litmus test may be: If you can afford real lawyers, you are too successful, and you will gain people’s distrust and acrimony instead of their appreciation.

  • Chris says:

    @ Leukothea –

    That is very interesting; I hadn’t seen that case before. The Rat City Roller Girls logo does look pretty similar, but it is interesting to see how the SB people are carefully “looking at” how to resolve it without seeming to be overly aggressive.

    I agree about real lawyers – whenever those get involved, the whole scenario changes, and often to the detriment of everyone.

  • Rob says:

    The Kieron Dwyer/Starbucks lawsuit had some similarities, as well. See here –

    Overly aggressive lawyers and trademark defense makes as much sense as the music industry suing its customers. IMHO, of course.

    “Selling out” is of course, nonsensical. The impression though, I think, that leads to it is the idea that the artist, rather than being true to their art, is attempting to tailor their output only to garner more mainstream access. As opposed to whatever their natural evolution of artistic expression is.

    But how anyone can distinguish the intentions of the artist is totally beyond me.

  • Ashton says:

    Great article.

    Large corporations or any company with a logo needs to defend that logo. Starbucks is only trying to keep their logo that they worked to get safe from anyone else trying to take it.

    Now in this situation they could have let it be since they don’t sell coffee and no one would confuse them with starbucks but even so they are just covering themselves. The logo is a huge part of starbucks and they just are protecting it since it is theirs.

  • Rob says:

    Except of course for the fact that no one would ever mistake a girl’s roller derby team for a coffee vendor.

    And in the Dwyer case, $$ trumped the fact that parody and satire is constitutionally protected free speech.

    “Just covering themselves” at the expense of other people’s rights, being litigious simply because they have the currency and the clout, is exactly why people sometimes develop such a distaste for “corporations” [as varied as those entities might be.]

  • Psiplex says:

    Post tipping point schlock escalation. This is where the entity gets past some core creative and starts to manufacture an ideology that gets increasingly propagandized and airborne. Having been part of a telecomm that was #11 when I entered the market (and underdog) to massive mainstream corporate fascism, it is ugly on the inside.

    I could care less what a company like AT&T or a giant pharma is promoting to brainwash the sheep, as it is just natural to shrug off the type of propaganda that mimics real issues like the environment, human rights, etc. I do care about the local small business with a success story about overcoming the odds and getting the 2nd or 5th coffee shop. Just hard snuggling up to the layered polished schlock and rhetoric from the 900 pound gorillas masquerading as proletariat.

    Great post!

  • Kat says:

    The one question I have for Chris, is when does the world become one homogeneous entity. Since you value travel, I assume you also value the differences in other countries, but Starbucks becomes so ubiquitous that all countries in the world have one on every corner, along with a McDonald’s and a GAP, then what is the point of traveling? We can all save a lot on airline travel and lower our carbon footprint and stay home, since most Starbucks I have been to around the world are the same.

  • Danny G says:

    The hatred I noticed against successful company are when we feel that they become monopolistic and feel that they make abuse of it. I don’t hear anything bad against Alcan (except when they close a plant because they built a new one, but that’s a matter of the union going crazy for nothing), but Quebecor is “evil” cause it sells is bad quality TV show through his magazine, newspaper and News Channel and their promotion are available only if you’re a Videotron (cable distribution) client. Since cable distributors have monopolies on their territories, it’s not great for me who happen to have never lived on a Videotron territory.

    Oh! I just found a correlation. It’s easier to hate a successful company or person when we have a direct relation with him/it. Only workers of Alcan would hate Alcan. Only clients of Starbucks and their competitors would hate Starbucks. Interesting!

    Note : I can’t relate to Starbucks since I never saw one. We have lots of Tim Hortons though. Great chance you won’t be able to related with Quebecor since it’s not present outside the Quebec. Just replace it with any company who happens to own a TV channel, newspaper, many magazine title and being “cablodistributeur” all at the same time and you’ll see the big picture.

  • Rubens says:

    I like this one!

    I’m a reader from Taiwan, a lovely small island on the other side of Atlantic.

    I noticed something also interesting, in a island country somewhat closed. When something popular in the U.S. is easy become popular later in here. There is a funny motto we have, “The moon is always rounder in other countries.” Therefore, when something starts getting popular, the “early adopter” will actually become “second hand early adopter.” These “second hand ones” will always be blamed by something such as “so what?”, that thing is already old-fashioned in the U.S. (or European countries, or Japan).

    Everyone loves to hate a winner, and maybe we all want to be the winner who bears the most hate.

  • Chris says:

    @ Kat and @ Reubens –

    Reading your comments together reminds me that I went to the Starbucks in Taipei (Taiwan) last summer while spending a couple of days on the island. In a way, it was “just like home” but it was also cool that you could get bean curd pastries and other Taiwanese snacks along with the ubiquitous tall latte.

    As to when the world “becomes one homogeneous entity,” well, that is a subject for a longer essay. I have added it to my list. 🙂

    @ Danny –

    Thanks (merci bien) for your comments about Quebec. That is all very insightful. I have noticed that countries, or regions in the case of Quebec, that have a lot of nationalism also tend to have a number of monopolies just as you describe.

    It doesn’t mean nationalism is by itself a bad thing; it just means that there is often some kind of correlation.

  • Rick says:

    I am going to focus on the music component and one band in particular: Metallica.

    Metallica was great when they were small, and they were great as they got bigger, and then they got involved with Bob Rock, who homogenized their sound. They did not need to appeal to the lowest common denominator to be successful, as they already were successful. Then they sued Napster (toss up if they were right or not), attacked their fans, etc… essentially lost touch with reality and deserve the animosity they get.

    Slayer, on the other hand, have kept the same set of values throughout their career, are hugely successful, and did not “sell out” their values for a little more cash. They could’ve easily watered down their product to make more money, but didn’t. Instead, they explored new artistic territory and were able to keep their old fans happy and still find new ones.

    Bands/musicians fail when they act like a corporation instead of an artistic entity AFTER they become famous. Trying to find a niche where one can be successful when you’re an unknown is one thing: Watering down your product to sell a few more albums when you’re already making millions is disgraceful.

  • Jana says:

    As Shakespeare said, the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Apparently it is even more fashionable to hate lawyers than it is to hate big corporations. At least, it has been fashionable for longer.

    In Shakespeare’s time, perhaps the entity we (the peasants) loved to hate was the king (or queen), duke or lord. It strikes me that part of the reason that we love to hate Starbucks is that it has considerable power. The Quebec commenter got at this by pointing out the monopoly piece. Monopolists are hated because they are unresponsive to their customers, inefficient and powerful.

    I think the last bit is significant. From Starbucks to Metallica to the Duchess of Kent, those with power are envied and this envy can manifest as hate. By the way, I’m a lawyer whose clients have included large multinational companies as well as individual clients without the money to pay me. In defense of myself and my brothers and sisters of the bar, lawyers for Starbucks, GM or Joe Schmoe are typically doing what is in their clients’ best interests; at least they should be.

    The idea being that the other side’s lawyers are doing the same, and that an impartial decision-maker judge or jury will sort out who’s right. Lawyers for big corporations, in my experience, are no more ethical nor sleazy than big corporations versus small ones.

  • DJ Francis says:

    Great post! I hope this isn’t too off-topic, but I love the image you used at the top.

    If you haven’t watched WordFreak yet, add it to your NetFlix queue today. I think G.I. Joel was a little more loved than the main point of this post implies, though I certainly agree with your premise.

    Great job.

  • Chris says:

    @DJ Francis –

    Yes, I have seen WordFreak, and also read the book. They are both informative and entertaining at the same time.

  • Jeff says:

    So… who’s XBOX 360? (…waits for the Ron Paul internet outcry…)

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