Can We Give the Mermaid a Break, Please?

Before all you naysayers, Debbie Downers and crowdsourcers persist in your badmouthing of the new Starbucks logo that headquarters took the wraps off of two weeks ago—and hell knows there are plenty of you—I’d like to stick my neck out here and call for a moment of reflection. Perhaps you can sit back with your Venti Latte as you read this because I suspect (to use the author of “Why the new Starbucks logo frightens me” editorial in the Washington Post last week as just one example) that plenty of you maniacal tweeters and angry Facebook updaters are Starbucks addicts to begin with.

From a branding perspective, there are quite a few positive aspects of this new icon. And, ye brand builders, who among you would not like to see your own company become an icon, as Starbucks is so patently now trying to be?

Maybe you were just a twinkle in your parents’ eyes when Nike became synonymous with a swoosh, Playboy became known by two bunny ears (and, well, some other things) and McDonald’s golden arch became the talisman for a quick, cheap cheeseburger. But today, like them or not, these symbols are as recognizable as the American flag.

So why the outcry over the green mermaid? Do you think that back in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, people took to the streets to voice their own personal design sensibilities and nitpick every Pantone shade and font style? My guess is no, namely because the logos of yore debuted in a different, Internet- and PDA-free era, when people had time to let the iconography sink in and didn’t sound off against a new corporate badge the moment of its unveiling.

Compare these introductions to the mayhem that ensued after Tropicana changed its orange juice packaging, when Pepsi introduced its new, slightly altered logo, or when The Gap took its logo out of the box (in an attempt to think out of the box), then cowered to criticism and went back, within a matter of days, to its old logo. Would anyone even be able to distinguish the new Starbucks logo from the old one if not for the thousands of Web sites, tweets and Facebook status updates related to its introduction?

But back to the business issue at hand. For the three or four of you who might not have seen it yet, the new Starbucks logo pretty much magnifies the mermaid and, most importantly, dispenses with the word “coffee.” And the logo works. It’s simple, ballsy and, without the “coffee” to limit the product offering, it’s remarkably adaptable (which was the whole point).
What most critics don’t realize is that this is Starbucks’ fourth logo since 1971. The first (which featured a brown, bare-breasted, double-tailed siren) has been modified over the years. So why this latest change? The way Starbucks is spinning it, the logo introduction coincides with the company’s 40th anniversary. Great. But the truth is, with its muddled offerings and loss of market share, Starbucks needed the refresh. So can you blame corporate for trying to do that?

I don’t—but clearly I’m in the minority. A Google search under “new Starbucks logo” yields a torrent of critical comments. (Example: “It’s the same freakin’ logo, just unfinished,” scowled one critic. “Where’s the name? Do they think they’re Prince or something?”) So I guess my plea for calm comes too late. Fortunately, when it comes to a more thoughtful consideration of this corporate maneuver, I have some company: “It seems the brand has shifted gears and is now offering up mermaids instead of coffee,” said the reliably snarky but smart AdRants. “And is that really a bad thing? After all, mermaids are hot!”

So’s the coffee—and so, as time goes on, will be this logo.

Gregg S. Lipman is a regular contributor to MediaPost’s Marketing Daily and to Brandweek. He is managing partner of strategic branding company CBX.