New Starbucks Logo Proves: This Company Likes Ordinary Folk

A company's fate can rise, or fall, on a new look, and when Starbucks last year revamped the logo for its Seattle's Best brand, the general opinion was: fall (or "fail," if you lolz in social media-speak). It may have done a spell better with its new concept for the flagship siren logo, unveiled Wednesday afternoon to "a cheering crowd of employees" who had gathered at the company's Seattle headquarters, and on a webcast. The new logo is all mermaid, all the time: an iconic look without text or border, using the "same vibrant green" and circular shape of the iteration adopted in 1992 (and still in use on cups today).

Opinions are certainly mixed, but the design-conscious coffee drinkers and foodies whose opinions I value thought it was, variously, "I love it... [it] goes beyond language," and "nice move, good timing for the brand." On the Starbucks web site, comments were generally not so appreciative, with most tending toward "HATE the new logo" and "I will probably be embarrassed to carry around such an obnoxious logo on my coffee cups." The crowd of mostly Starbucks-partners at Starbucks Gossip were generally negative; their comments can be summed up by frappuccinist's:"overthought postmodernist crap."

Keen Starbucks customers and analysts, meanwhile, are paying careful attention to the meaning of dropping the word "coffee" from the logo, and asking if this does not hearken a shift toward a true "quick service restaurant" which can offer food and beverages to coffee lovers and haters alike. CEO Howard Schultz's comments certainly reflect that concept: "Starbucks will continue to offer the highest-quality coffee, but we will offer other products as well -- and while the integrity, quality and consistency of these products must remain true to who we are, our new brand identity will give us the freedom and flexibility to explore innovations and new channels of distribution that will keep us in step with our current customers and build strong connections with new customers."

Other WalletPoppers, when asked their opinion of the redesign, focused on the concept that "the redesign is a signal that much/most of what they sell now and will sell in the future is not coffee." As Tara-Nicholle Nelson wrote, "I definitely look for the green mermaid to find freeway exits I'll be able to find something at (green tea, egg whites, other fare that's tough to find on the road)." But David Kiley responded, "If they are going to expand their food offerings they had better step it up. The sammies are awful .... the scones and other baked goods are pedestrian at best," saying he'd choose a Panera over a Starbucks on any given road trip. Lan Nguyen chimed in, "The pastries leave much to be desired. And now that they post the calorie counts on each of them here in NYC, buying them is a waste of good money."

I'd agree with the pastry problem. While I don't focus so much on calorie counts, what I do care about is sugar, whole grains and organic ingredients. Starbucks has come to a laser-focus on removing trans fats and chemical preservatives and providing "lean" options, when the healthy food environment has come to believe that too much sugar, highly-processed grains, and the presence of pesticides are equally concerning enemies. It's hard to order a pastry at Starbucks that doesn't leave my teeth aching and my head buzzing from sugar and white flour; its sweets are delicious, sure, but healthy, they're not. And the instant oatmeal that's touted as a healthy breakfast option is, well, instant oatmeal, served with more sugar. Instant oatmeal and instant coffee? Is this the tone of the "new innovations and new channels of distribution" that the brand will give Starbucks the "freedom and flexibility" to pursue? Pooh.

Schultz's comments and many of the analytic viewpoints translate to a sign Starbucks is seeking to shift away from, not just a coffee focus, but a coffeehouse focus. It's an evolution I've been marking for some time, as the company put serious investment into its Seattle's Best brand -- a coffee that is less over-roasted and more "mellow," meant to appeal to the sort of middle-American customer that (studies show) prefers Dunkin Donuts coffee over Starbucks -- and put considerable effort into the development of its instant coffee beverage, Via. Via is a symbol of the new Starbucks; offered in plenty of flavors and with a variety of over-packaged coffee delivery devices (why you need a $30 "maker" for an instant coffee, I'll never figure out, but one is prominently displayed at my corner Starbucks).

As much as Schultz may say that the company's brand identity is still tied up in the creation of "a Third Place for our customers between their homes and places of work," I see more and more of a departure from that. Let's remember that Schultz himself went to Italy, fell in love with the coffee bars there, and sought to replicate it with the little coffee roasting company some of his friends started. But the European coffeehouse culture is edgy and (horrors) "elite" -- OMG, you can almost hear Starbucks' new generation of brand experts saying, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Lenin are famous for hanging out in coffeehouses.

Today's Starbucks is as far as it can be from the revolutionaries, philosophers, and poets who inspired its foundation; come to think of it, Herman Melville himself (from whose Moby Dick the name comes) would surely not be the target customer of this new Starbucks. Instead, it's a bland, sweet, barely-caffeinated and high-calorie product meant to be the same everywhere -- grocery store, Seattle coffee shop, freeway exit. It's a cohesive brand strategy, surely, just not one I much like -- nor, I'd argue, would have the Howard Schultz of 1971.
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