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Rhetorical history and strategic marketing: the example of Starbucks

Pierre Volle (Université Paris-Dauphine, PSL Research University, CNRS, DRM, [ERMES], Paris, France)

Journal of Historical Research in Marketing

ISSN: 1755-750X

Article publication date: 28 December 2021

Issue publication date: 26 January 2022




This study aims to illustrate how firms engage in rhetorical history, i.e. “the process by which managers skillfully impose meaning on a firm’s past as a persuasive and agentic process” (Suddaby et al., 2010). The case study shows that the connection of past events to specific and schematic narratives allows external events to be appropriated and used by Starbucks as assets to achieve its organizational goals (e.g. legitimacy).


The study is based on a close reading and coding of 1,852 “stories” (2,470 pages) published by Starbucks between 2003 and 2020.


The authors first show that Starbucks’ language relies heavily on terms referring to temporality. The authors then highlight the organization’s efforts to assert its history, to emphasize its heritage and to inscribe itself in local and national histories. With this case study, the authors contribute to the ongoing debate on history as an organizational resource. The study shows how brands that are not necessarily “historical” can mobilize rhetorical history in their strategic marketing.

Research limitations/implications

This case study illustrates four heritage implementation strategies: narrating, visualizing, performing and embodying. Further research could contribute to the discussion of rhetorical history production practices, in particular how heritage elements are validated, articulated, related and adopted by organizations (Burghausen and Balmer, 2014).


The research shows that the main mechanism for constituting social memory assets does not lie in the accumulation of narratives, but in the coupling of narratives at different levels, and in the inclusion of several stakeholders within the narratives. The research also highlights that the affirmation of the historicity of the firm is a prerequisite for the constitution of social memory assets. The research shows that there are a wide variety of ways to convey historical narratives, in particular the essential role leadership plays in the rhetorical process of historicization. The research also shows that the issues of identity and legitimacy are more closely linked than previous research has suggested. In a way, rhetorical history serves strategic management as much as marketing. The porosity between the different audiences allows for a strong alignment between stakeholders, thus consolidating a competitive advantage that lies at the heart of Starbucks’ success, and which notably contributes to reinforcing its core value proposition (i.e. access to a “welcoming, safe and inclusive” third place) and its relational business model. Finally, the case shows that the mobilization of social memory assets does not necessarily lead to the use of nostalgic associations. In this case, for Starbucks, it is not a matter of cultivating memories of the “good old days” but of drawing inspiration from the past, of maintaining traditions to remain culturally relevant and of relying on these assets to project itself into the future.



Volle, P. (2022), "Rhetorical history and strategic marketing: the example of Starbucks", Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 14 No. 1, pp. 111-129.



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