Seattle's Best new logo sparks debate: Blood coffee?

"Seattle's Best Blood Bank?" asks the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In a bid to create a "reassuring," distinctive brand for its subsidiary, Seattle's Best Coffee, Starbucks this week unveiled a new logo that has consumers and critics making comparisons to blood, oil and tears. With understated gray and red colors and a distinctively simple, rounded font, it has achieved differentiation from the florid mermaid image and green colors of its parent company: but it hasn't achieved much, so far, in the way of fans.

The company issued a statement saying it is confident in the design, created by Seattle agency Creature: "The new Seattle's Best Coffee logo maintains the brand's historic association with its name and the color red while assembling a number of universal coffee symbols, such as a drop and a cup, in an unexpected way."

Indeed, design industry pundits generally admire the work. In his corporate identity publication Brand New, Armin Vit says the design is "radical" and "striking, and makes an impact." Commenters on the post were not so kind, coining the oft-quoted "Seattle's Best Blood Bank" moniker, and criticizing the identity as more appropriate for a convenience store or an oil company; and comparing it to Target's iconic bulls-eye logo. Some consumers say it looks "simple," others say "sterile." A few see it as powerful, iconic; one commenter on the Brand New post calls it a "smiley face with a tongue."

I'll admit: at first glance I didn't like the logo much, either, agreeing with the "generic" criticism and wondering if its simplicity goes too far. Surely, a handle on that coffee cup would have changed the iconic drop from blood or oil to coffee in a minute. On the other hand, though, this logo isn't for a fancy, ornate cup of coffee (and, surely, the logo on Seattle's Best Coffee cups today is old-fashioned and bland, not at all distinctive, and no one ever compares it to a smiling face). SBC is, according to CEO Howard Schultz, the "approachable taste profile" that the company pitches to a "mainstream" market; the recently-announced partnerships with Subway, Burger King and AMC Theaters demonstrate the brand's appeal to the middle American everyone. The company says it will roll out the new brand in Burger King first this summer, then AMC theatres in July and in other outlets this fall.

I talked to Jenny McCabe, Director of Communications for Seattle's Best Coffee. She wants us to see this not just as a logo but as the first bit in the whole new business strategy for Seattle's Best -- "a portal," she tells me. This isn't supposed to evoke the associations we're used to with Starbucks coffee, the comfortable space, the third place. "It's a completely different symbol than the cafe model," she tells me, which needs to be more than a sign on a coffee shop. "It has to live in all kinds of environments," like Burger King and AMC, and in the many other habitats where Seattle's Best coffee can already be found, Alaska Airlines and Royal Caribbean cruise ships and university cafeterias and offices.

When creating this new brand identity, Seattle's Best executives were looking "to make coffee fun, simple and inspirational." McCabe says that the focus groups thought the logo showed all these things, plus optimism. What's more, 73% agreed "the logo would represent high-quality coffee." One consumer called it "a drop of joy," a descriptive that made McCabe's heart soar. "I'm really passionate about this brand," she said.

While I would quibble with the "high-quality coffee" bit -- I'm a coffee drinker who prefers single-estate varietals to blends and looks for high-falutin' things like "citrus notes" and "bright blueberry flavors" in her brew, or, in other words, not the target consumer here -- I do agree that the logo is attractive and arresting. And after McCabe tells me that "we want to bring great coffee everywhere" and her vision of the logo is that it is "almost like a beacon," I'm just about convinced the coffee drop does just that. She goes on, "some of the inspiration behind the logo is based on a European road sign -- like a wayfinder ... we wanted it to have universal appeal," and I can see it now. More than Target I see a London Underground or a British speed limit indicator. I can see the friendly, sippable side of this logo.

"Give it a year," says McCabe. I think she's right; after all, the frenzy over the iPad's connection to feminine products has been quickly replaced by the frenzy to buy an iPad.

A brand becomes what it stands for; the first outcry is often succeeded by a familiarity and, for Seattle's Best, this comfort, reliability, is the goal. For the three-out-of-four of you who see a smile here, there are three-out-of-four who just want coffee to which you can relate (no "refreshing aromatics of Florida grapefruit" -- a description of the coffee I'm drinking today). If Seattle's Best can be that snug cup of coffee for you, then this is its fitting beacon.
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