Rhiannon Harries: I'm in the middle of a chain reaction – and I don't like it

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The Independent Online

A couple of years ago I went on a date with a self-confessed food snob. When he began quizzing me on my favourite restaurants, I knew judgement was imminent. "What if I say Café Rouge?" I ventured suspiciously. His incredulous guffaw summed up the popular consensus on global brands and chains – they might be the places where we drop most of our salary day in, day out, but the only acceptable justification is convenience. We are not allowed to genuinely like them.

The rule extends beyond the high street. If you are caught humming Cheryl Cole's latest single, you can blame it on the brainwash of constant radio and TV airplay – but start including it among your all-time favourite songs in polite company and expect to be written off as a moron.

In short, anything that has been manufactured to appeal – through its very blandness – to the largest demographic and thereby line corporate pockets must be enjoyed grudgingly, if at all. Trying to be ironic and postmodern about it no longer washes; loyalty and affection must be reserved for the independent, the quirky and the small-scale.

Which is why things have become confusing recently, as it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the two. In some cases, that's because there's no difference at all. Witness Starbucks' new "concept" store on London's Conduit Street. All unfinished wood and retro espresso machines, it is a far cry from the Identikit interiors of 'bucks the world over. Squint a little to obscure the branded mugs and you could have found yourself in your favourite new indie establishment.

Of course, that's exactly the point, and it's actually rather pleasant until you realise that similar "stealth stores" are popping up across the world, from the US to Japan. Suddenly, the whole thing begins to feel a bit grim, not least because Starbucks' latest marketing strategy seizes on the rather shallow foundations of some of our holier-than-thou attitudes to big brands. "Distract them with some tasteful mid-century modern design and all will be forgiven" seems to be the thinking, and I have a sneaking feeling that, in the short term at least, they might be right.

The recent army of defiantly kooky female popstrels inspires similar feelings of mistrust. "Look how individual they all are!" raved the press. But apart from a pom-pom here and a different shade of eyeliner there, Little Boots, Paloma Faith, Florence et al look remarkably similar to me. That isn't to say they aren't a vast improvement on the X-Factory bunch; just that, like Starbucks' stealth stores, however much they may appear to be a different species, they still belong to the same universe.