Starbucks has received a right royal roasting for radically overhauling its corporate identity. Was the predictable social media-minted orgy of self-righteousness that followed the announcement actually justified?
Superficially, the furore bears comparison to that recently generated by changes (intended changes, at any rate) to the Gap logo. In fact, the parallel is false. Gap did what it did (and then quickly retracted it) in a knee-jerk reaction to deteriorating market conditions – rather like a slapdash painter adding a fresh lick of paint to an old and crumbling wall in the hope that no one would notice what lies underneath.
There’s no sign of that at Starbucks which, on the contrary, has been doing rather well recently: global net revenues increased 9.5% to $10.7bn in 2010. Nor was there anything slapdash about the decision to “liberate” the iconic siren from the chastity belt of her surrounding “Starbucks Coffee” copy. Chairman, president and chief executive Howard Schultz deliberately selected the 40th anniversary of the world’s largest coffee chain to signal a change of strategic direction. And what more emblematic way of doing it than changing the logo?
Entrepreneurial leader types are, after all, supposed to be visionary. We wouldn’t fault Steve Jobs for being innovative in this way (as a matter of fact, he has been – significantly changing the Apple logo a number of times, of which more below).
But Jobs has got away with it because, time after time, his strategic “hunches” have proved to be correct, with massive dividends accruing to his customers and investors. Schultz, on the other hand, I’m not so sure about. True, he has an impressive near 28-year track record at the company; but the message he is putting out about a change of direction is conflicted.
Sure, you can drop the brand name from the logo if the accompanying symbol is powerful and loved enough by consumers to pass the stand-alone test. It makes the brand image less cluttered, more streamlined, more telegraphic: all good from a communications point of view. It’s also minimalist – very trendy in design circles right now; quite rightly, no company would wish to be regarded as fuddy-duddy or obsolete. What’s more, there are plenty of other famous brands that have made this transition successfully: the aforementioned Apple of course, but also VW, Nike and Shell to quote just a few.
Add to this Schultz’s strategic underpinning and it all seems to make sense. If, as he says, he is going to move beyond coffee retailing, then it’s foolish to constrain the brand by explicit mention of the word “coffee” in the corporate id. Unfortunately, that’s not all he says. He starts with “We’ve allowed her (the siren) to come out of the circle in a way that enables us to think beyond coffee” and then seems to contradict himself with “…but make no mistake. We have been, we are, and always will be, the leading purveyor of the world’s highest quality coffee.”
Many, of course, would doubt the veracity of that last bit. And here we come to Starbucks’ key difficulty in moving on as a brand. Its customers, particularly its American customers, seem to engage in a kind of double-think. They associate the brand with the aroma of freshly ground coffee, but what they are actually interested in buying is a sweet and sickly adult milkshake. Cue Melanie Warner at BNET:
For all his love of the authentic Italian cafes that supposedly inspired him, CEO Howard Schultz figured out early on that most people care more about sweetened, foamy, warm milk than they do about old school coffee. But they like the idea of coffee — the smell and the vibe of coffee shops.
And this is why the logo change is so risky. In highlighting the green mermaid image, it’s really only an amplification of what was already there, which is good. But taking away the words “Starbucks Coffee” chips away at the idea of what Starbucks is supposed to be. If the company isn’t about coffee anymore, what does it stand for? Sweetened foam? Brownie bars?
What indeed? There have been noises about a new raft of quality branded goods and services coming out of Starbucks, but detail remains thin – no doubt because Starbucks is trying to shake off an exclusive distribution deal with Kraft, and Kraft is having none of it.
Expunge the coffee aroma, and all we are left with – for the moment – is a slick retail operation similar, but inferior, to McDonald’s, with some interesting co-ventures – involving for example, the sale of alcohol and Apple iTunes – tacked on.
Mind you, this brouhaha over the future of the Starbucks brand needs to be put into perspective. Who, in their right mind, would ever have chosen “Starbucks” as a name – or a siren as the emblem – in the first place? Both are doom-laden images. Starbucks is named after the first mate of the ill-fated Pequod, skippered by Captain Ahab, in the novel Moby-Dick. All but one of the crew perished in a disastrous naval engagement with the Great White Whale – and the survivor was not Starbuck. One of company’s founders actually favoured the name “Pequod” – until it was pointed out to him that no one would ever buy coffee from somewhere pronounced “Pee-Cod”. “Starbucks” was the reluctant compromise candidate. As for the siren, if my knowledge of Greek mythology serves me correctly, she was a sea nymph whose main self-appointed task in life was to lure sailors to their destruction. Apparently, the more subliminal focal point behind all this gloomy imagery is the exotic marine journey of the unground bean from plantation to coffee house mill. Famously Seattle, Starbucks’ HQ, is a major port.
All of which may go to show that creative people are not often in their right mind. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t be creative.