I don’t know all the details of the Starbucks story. I haven’t read too much about their successes and failures, business plans, or operational strategies. I do, however, remember a time when they simply did not exist.

How did so many people manage to survive without their Starbucks “fix” before every street corner included the familiar green umbrellas and small café tables and chairs? And if we really need coffee on every street corner, then how come Dunkin’ Donuts – which was selling coffee 21 years before the original Starbucks opened in Seattle – only yesterday got to the point of IPO? I hear they are trying to compete with Starbucks. But is it possible for them to repeat the phenomenon?A couple of years ago, it became clear to me that Starbucks’ popularity has something to do with this: they’re selling comfort as much as they’re selling coffee.

I was recently traveling with a colleague on a business trip to China. We had a brief stopover in Japan, and right there in the airport, with bleary eyes and the accompanying mental cloud that forms from several hours of overseas flight, I stumbled across a Starbucks. Suddenly the familiarity of the smell of their coffee, their green aprons, and a counter of treats to pair with my favorite drink (gotta love the caramel macchiato) provided me with a sense of comfort and belonging that had left me during my boarding back in San Francisco.

Like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts has spread to many other countries, is selling its branded coffee in grocery stores, and is trying to create a culture around its cappuccinos. But it remains to be seen whether Dunkin’ Donuts can make as many people feel the strong sensations and emotions that are experienced by so many Starbucks fans. In the meantime, I’ll still have my cup of coffee at home most mornings and I’ll even dare to drink the office “rocket fuel” from time to time.

Whatever your coffee preference, you’ve got to admit, the folks at Starbucks have a pretty amazing story, growing such a recognizable brand from such a basic commodity. Who would have ever dared to think we’d rush out in our cars, drive a couple of miles (or even just a couple of blocks), and throw down our hard earned dollars for coffee? Well, clearly someone believed in the concept. You can’t help but wonder what the next Starbucks-type of movement will be like, can you?