Won Over by the Queen of all Sirens

Last week Starbucks introduced a significant logo change, dropping the word “coffee” and, even more dramatically, the company name from its mark. Needless to say, it’s a bold gambit to join the pantheon of iconic brands that have faith we know who they are and what they represent.

It’s interesting to analyze the soft launch of Starbucks against the clumsy logo spill of Gap last fall. In contrast to this tightly mapped, strategically driven change from Starbucks, Gap approached its brand evolution as a pure design exercise, not as a strategic repositioning exercise. By all accounts, Gap was careless in the introduction, clearly underestimated consumer interest and, in the end scuttled their new logo.

Starbucks has taken a different tack with a carefully plotted course supportive of product growth and global expansion. It reinforces a brand strategy that is expanding the meaning of Starbucks beyond coffee to its own unique blend of “Experience and Place.”

In this light, jettisoning the word “coffee” from the logo is a no-brainer. 

Starbucks’ global business strategy rests upon far more than coffee. It has already expanded into tea, ice cream, breakfast and lunch foods, music, and grinding and brewing contraptions—all under an umbrella of fair trade practices. This brand, however, is not about what it does, but rather how it does it and to what end. The ultimate Starbucks promise is companionship, reverie and discovery, wrapped up in the sensations of smell and sound that ultimately define the total brand experience.

Dropping the Starbucks name from the logo must have brewed a scalding debate and could only have happened with the close involvement of the CEO. In fact, according to Starbucks marketing svp Terry Davenport, the initiative actually originated with Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz, who made a return to the company in 2008 after an eight-year hiatus.

As a designer I can attest to how extremely difficult it is to smoothly blend color, name, category and mascot into a simple shape and create a proprietary and memorable logo that is easily applied to just about anything in any medium. So purely from a graphic design perspective, the prior Starbucks logo is a masterpiece of efficiency.

This new design is an example of elegant simplicity. It leverages the color and shape that people intuitively associate with Starbucks, eliminates competing elements and leaves the siren to shine. With the name and category gone, she has the center stage all to herself.  Proportionally she occupies more than twice as much real estate, and her wavy form and features are at last easily seen and enjoyed.

Elevating the prominence of the siren gives this logo a much stronger and more intriguing narrative quality. She beckons customers to come enjoy a moment that can be their own—either personal and reflective or shared with like souls. This mermaid assumes you know what she represents and invites you to have an experience. 

Is Starbucks in the category of Apple, Shell, Nike and Target? In human terms has it joined the ranks of Madonna, Bono, Oprah or The Artist Formerly Known as Prince? 

I believe that Starbucks is ready for that jump. Let’s be clear, the nameless siren will almost always be seen in a context that completes the picture, including coffee cups, product packaging, retail signage, Web and mobile environments, CD cases and gift cards.

Starbucks is a brand that brews no small amount of passion and connects with people on a visceral level. Their coffee moments are their own moments. And the siren will emerge as a graphic icon that calls them to moments that are about more than just coffee.

Howard Belk is co-president, CEO and CCO of Siegel+Gale. He can be reached at hbelk@siegelgale.com.