Right around the corner from my house, Dumb Starbucks opened up. And it's practically all I've heard about all weekend. This was a bit alarming to me, as I'm accustomed to being the subject whenever "dumb" was discussed in my neighborhood. Like most people, I think there's a lesson here for Chinese carmakers.
First, I probably better go over really quickly what this place is for those of you not keeping up with the latest developments in the fake/knockoff-coffeeshop world. Friday, seemingly out of nowhere, this coffee shop opened, looking an awful lot like a Starbucks. An awful lot. As in the same decor, color scheme, menu, sign and logo, but all of these with one key addition: the word "dumb" precedes everything. So, it's Dumb Starbucks where you go in the Dumb Door and order a Dumb Tall Mocha Allanté Latte or whatever from the Dumb Barista.
I think the coffee was being given away for free this weekend — I'm not totally sure, because when I went by there was a line around the block and I don't really drink coffee, anyway. What they're doing is clearly meant to be provocative in some way, and a sign suggests they think they can do this because of "parody law."
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They're comparing what they're doing to Weird Al Yankovic's parody songs — they say they're parodying Starbucks by appending that "dumb" everywhere. Realistically, I don't think that's how the law actually works, since it's more trademark law than copyright they're dealing with, and a functioning coffee shop that literally just sells coffee is more of a clone than a parody. I'm sure Starbucks will be sending some cease-and-desists soon.
Still, no matter what happens, they're getting a lot of attention. And while it's unclear why they're doing this, or even who is doing it (promo for a TV show? wealthy mischievous loon? some art project?) the end result is they're being talked about and the store is being visited. If, say, this was some new coffee shop's way of getting people in to sample their product and once they get that cease-and-desist from Starbucks they'll drop the act and just call themselves Dumb Coffee or whatever, they've managed to circumvent the difficulty of any new business in getting people aware and interested.
So what does this have to do with cars? Especially Chinese ones?
Okay, okay, with the questions, already. I'm getting to that. Here's the thing: Chinese cars get attention in the US for two primary things: poor quality and shameless knockoffs. Eventually, China will want to sell cars in America. And they will have a hell of a time overcoming those two primary stereotypes. People either think of scary videos of Brillances liquifying in crash tests or hilariously close clones of Rolls Royces and Smart cars made by Chinese companies.
What Dumb Starbucks has show is that Americans are very, very interested in the idea of the shameless knockoff. People like to see big companies being tweaked, and I think they have a certain perverse respect for the bold shamelessness of the act.
Assuming China's motor industry can get their quality standards up to the level Americans expect (and I think they eventually will) then leveraging this perverse love for the shameless knockoff could work for them, too.
Take BYD, for example. The only reason any American gearhead probably knows about them is that their logo once looked just like a half-assed BMW roundel copy. Let's say they manage to develop a genuinely decent automotive platform that they want to sell in America's vast market. How can they get people to notice them and try them out to dispel any fears of poor quality?
The Dumb Starbucks approach could work. BYD would design a body that's a shameless knockoff of a very distinctive car — let's stick with BMW, for example. Say BYD releases the BYD 2 Series (in limited quantity), and it looks just like a BMW 2 series. In addition to designing the knockoff, they've also developed an original body style as well, but that's kept hidden at first.
They release the BMW knockoff cars, and just wait for the shitstorm. But that same shit pressure system coming from Germany will bring along with it a lot of attention, and some of that attention will translate into people going to BYD dealerships to drive one of these cars, just for the hell of it.
If BYD's engineers did their job well, some of those people will walk away impressed with BYD. People who may never have considered a Chinese car ever before.
Before too long, BMW's lawyers will demand the BYD 2 Series cars be removed from the market and destroyed. BYD can then make a big deal about removing their cars from the market and crushing them, and use that as a backdrop to announce the replacement BYD, which is based on the same platform as the knockoff but looks nothing like a BMW.
If the designers and engineers did a worthwhile job, BYD will now have a good product that lots of people know about, and many people have even given a test drive, even if it was clothed in BMW's skin for a while. BYD will have managed to jump over the hurdles of new-carmaker obscurity and the assumptions of poor quality with one ridiculous stunt like this.
Is it a good plan? Probably not, but I'm going to hold judgement until I know what these Dumb Starbucks kooks are doing. If this pays off, then, well, BYD can contact me here, at the original dumb Jalopnik.