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Starbucks in China: Grande Mao Lattes?

There's a fascinating story in today's Wall Street Journal about Starbucks' plans to open "thousands" of new coffee shops across China.

Here are the basics: Starbucks, which entered the dragon in 1999, now has 376 stores on the Chinese mainland.

But CEO Howard Schultz told the Journal that China is the coffee giant's new focus. (It already has 878 locations in Japan, its second largest market). Schultz also said Starbucks hopes to soon enter India and Vietnam.

But what's most interesting here has more to do with culture than economics, or even business strategy. And it's the same challenge faced each day by thousands of global companies looking to cash in on the dynamic changes sweeping Asia.

Here's the 1.3 billion person question: can Starbucks take its cookie-cutter model, and apply it to the complexities of this complex culture? Can it adapt? How will it do so? And, most importantly, what do the Chinese really want at the bottom of their Grande Mao Lattes?

So far, Schultz seems to understand the magnitude of the challenge:

"Cracking the code in China for any company is not an easy task—there will be a number of winners and lots of losers of people who go there and rush to judgment and don't succeed," Schultz told the Journal. "The thing I am most interested in when I go to China is whether or not local Chinese are buying Starbucks coffee and sitting in our stores."