Thursday, January 6, 2011

Change brew

It’s an irony of brand identification: When it comes to the most successful brands in the world of marketing, the company doesn’t own the brand, the public does. The visual branding of a company that’s globally known and respected is an everyday familiar for the company’s millions of customers; tweak it at your peril.

Unless, of course, there’s a good reason. Like a 40th anniversary to be observed, a celebration of how far you’ve come since opening a small obscure shop at 200 Western Avenue, near Seattle’s Pike Place Market, in March 1971. Unless you’re the Starbucks Corporation, boasting 16,858 stores in 50 countries and long into the process of expanding out of making sales on coffee alone, transforming into a brand that’s as much about a lifestyle experience as it is about a pound of Sumatra ground for pump espresso.

Starbucks is marking that milestone with a new logo (or actually a tweak on earlier iterations of the old logos). There’s a strong popular identification with the Starbucks logo – the mermaid known as the Siren, whose Mona Lisa countenance beckons you inside ... to surrender to a chai tea latte. Global recognition isn't something to play with.

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On the Starbucks Web site, a senior creative manager, Mike P., describes how company creatives handled the change:

“From the start, we wanted to recognize and honor the important equities of the iconic Starbucks logo. So we broke down the four main parts of the mark – color, shape, typeface and the Siren. After hundreds of explorations, we found the answer in simplicity. Removing the words from the mark, bringing in the green, and taking the Siren out of her ring. For forty years she’s represented coffee, and now she is the star.

“The details came next. The 20-year old logo was built in the early days of AutoTrace and it showed – points everywhere. We improved composition, brought in more sophisticated stroke width and spacing and a smoother line flow. When it came to her – the Siren – we enhanced her form in subtle ways, smoothing her hair, refining her facial features, weighting the scales on her tail to bring the focus to her face. We enlisted the branding firm of Lippincott to help with these refinements, and give us a better global perspective on the entire identity system.

“The result is an evolved logo that celebrates the Siren in a much bolder way – it’s more expressive and energetic and still uses the same vibrant green circle that is so well recognized by our customers around the world.”

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People are up in arms already. Sometimes for the wrong reasons. Jim Edwards, who writes The Tagline for BNET, harrumphed smugly, completely overlooking the anniversary angle in a Wednesday blog that condemned the makeover without thinking it through:

“The change was needless. Starbucks enjoyed record revenues last year. It has bounced back as if the recession never happened. So why screw with a winning recipe?”

Like we said, you don’t, without a good reason — like a major even-numbered anniversary year that ushers in other changes.

But Edwards, apparently having missed the years when Starbucks was diversifying its non-coffee product line (everything from snacks and sandwiches to non-coffee drinks and specialty CD releases to free downloadable iTunes tracks), weighs in again:

“There’s another marketing industry term for diversification into ‘new areas’: brand worsification. It’s what happens when a perfectly good brand with a solid record in selling, say, coffee, suddenly decides it can sell anything ‘with our name on it and no coffee in it.’ Such a transition requires that defining — even dominant — attributes such as ‘coffee’ are removed from the brand, thus by definition diluting the brand’s equity.”

Crap. The “transition” Edwards is talking about “suddenly” happening has been going on for years; Schultz’s 40th anniversary logo rollout is one of other changes still to be announced, changes likely to further cement the relationship between Starbucks and its loyal customer base.

That diversification may have something to do with the logo switch, sure enough. More than likely, the change was made as a reflection of the evolution of a kind of branding that’s been going on for years: cleaner, lighter, more minimalist in its expression, more willing to concede the fact that the customer knows the brand already. After 40 years, Starbucks eliminated the word “Coffee,” even got rid of the name “Starbucks” too. Why?

Simply put, they were unnecessary. The art historian and essayist Walter Pater observed that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” Likewise, all textual expression may well aspire to the condition of visual art — seeking a way to speak volumes with a minimum of words.

In the case of something immediately familiar ... with no words at all.

Starbucks’ logo change merely reinforces what we’ve known all for years now: Coffee remains the world’s leading beverage, and Starbucks sells more of it than anybody else. We are a captive audience.

Look at the new logo steadily for 30 seconds, then close your eyes. The afterimage will be a skinny decaf café mocha.

The Siren Barista calls to you. After 40 years, you don’t have to read the word “coffee” to know what she’s selling.
Image credits: All images: © 2010 Starbucks Corporation.

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