Why the New Caribou Coffee Logo Features Less Caribou

Caribou Coffee, a distant No. 2 in the coffee chain category next to Starbucks, is attempting to bolster its appeal as a branded coffee company by playing down the ski lodge imagery and, yes, the caribou, with a sweeping rebranding.

The push, which includes a new logo and print work, comes as the brand attempts to foster a more contemporary, less regional image. With locations in 15 Midwestern and Eastern states, Caribou doesn’t have the national retail footprint of Starbucks and has a fraction of the marketing budget. But it is known for its quality—Consumer Reports ranked it No.1 among java purveyors—and a new management team wants to expand upon that and build a national presence. One way to do that is by rolling out branded ground coffee on other retailers’ shelves. Such sales rose 77 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, per the company. Caribou is now in 7,000 U.S. grocery stores.

The rebranding is being driven by CEO Mike Tattersfield, a former Yum exec who joined Caribou in 2008. Tattersfield brought in a former Yum colleague Alfredo Martel as svp, marketing, 14 months ago. Martel inherited nine marketing communications partners and a “schizophrenic brand image” when it came to things like Caribou’s consumer products packaging, point of purchase and collateral. Martel launched an agency review and selected Minneapolis shop Colle+McVoy, creator of the new logo, color palette and advertising. Caribou, which aired its first-ever TV ads last fall, will have more on-air spots, launch its largest out-of-home pitch to date and debut a new Web site.

“We wanted to re-energize Caribou’s existing values and strategic pillars in a more contemporary articulation,” said Martel. “What galvanizes the brand is ‘a higher state of bean.’ It’s about an elevation of spirit and non-negotiable quality. We’ve always had a quirky tone.”

In reworking the leaping caribou logo, Colle+McVoy softened its northwoods look, adding more fluid graphics and stylizing the deer’s legs to look like a coffee bean. The team considered more than 500 concepts for a new tag but wound up retaining its existing one: “Life is short. Stay awake for it.” New emphasis was given through “Bou-isms” like “max out your passport” and “be the first to apologize.”

“We were looking for more mass appeal. Our customers in the north could relate to the ski lodge, but those in southern states, not so much,” said Mike Caguin, ecd, Colle+McVoy. “The original tag was more about staying awake. Now we’re making it into a social movement, with a ‘seize the day’ message.”

Over the past year, Caribou’s new management team, which includes senior execs from Starbucks, has introduced new menu offerings like chocolate-based drinks and oatmeal. “The company used to have a promotional calendar 30 days out,” Martel said. “Now with our new product pipeline, it’s eight to 12 months out which gives us the time for process, creativity and discipline in launching new products.”

While Caribou has increased its marketing spending, Martel said it’s probably equivalent to what larger competitors like Starbucks spend on PR alone. In 2009, Caribou spent $1 million compared to the $43 million spent by Starbucks, per the Nielsen Co.

Given that discrepancy, can Caribou take on larger entrenched rivals like Starbucks? “Caribou is more of a Midwestern brand, but retail sales is a great way to expand their national presence,” said Darren Tristano, svp at food service consultancy Technomic.

Caribou’s attempts for more mass appeal is the first indication of  the company’s ambitions to replicate its niche success on a larger scale—something that may well be in its reach. Caribou consistently scored higher in customer satisfaction than Starbucks last year, according to YouGov’s BrandIndex, and is on the rise.