Starbucks dumps “Coffee” and I think is likely to get burned

January 6, 2011

Starbucks     Change can be good and many times change can be welcomed. Change is so powerful a concept that the word itself put Obama in the White House.

    But when it comes to branding, the best kind of change is usually no change at all. Sure, over the decades a brand needs subtle, almost unperceivable, changes to keep the brand current and fresh. But radical changes by well-known brands is most often a bad idea.

    Just ask The Gap or Tropicana.

    Today, Starbucks unveiled a new logo which drops its name “Starbucks” as well as the word it owns in the mind “Coffee.” What is left is a large green Mermaid.

    Smart move? I think not.

    Is the Mermaid the first thing you think of when you think of Starbucks? No.

    Is a Mermaid a powerful visual for a coffee brand? No.

    That’s why the Mermaid isn’t top of mind for Starbucks. It is a unique visual which is good, but it is not very powerful since it has no clear relation to the brand.

    Powerful visuals like the golden arches for McDonald’s, the cowboy for Marlboro and the chili pepper for Chili’s all have clear connections to the brands and their positions.

    Is the Mermaid simple? No.

    Powerful visuals should also be very simple in design. Over the years, Starbucks has done a good job of making simplifying its Mermaid. But it is still far more complex than visuals like the Nike swoosh, the Mercedes tri-star or Apple’s apple.     But what is really troubling about the change is the explanation Chief Executive Howard Schultz gave: “Even though we have been and always will be a coffee company and retailer, it’s possible we’ll have other products with our name on it and no coffee in it.”

    No coffee in it? Is that a good idea for Starbucks? Apparently one of the reasons Starbucks took the word “coffee” off the logo is that they want to launch stuff that has nothing to do with coffee. This is a fundamental marketing mistake. A strong brand is focused and owns a word or category in the mind.

    The Starbucks brand was built on coffee and nobody knows that better than Howard Schultz. Seeing him so blatantly and arrogantly remove it from the logo is blasphemous.

    And not because Starbucks shouldn’t launch non-coffee products. Starbucks today is big enough that it can and probably should be thinking of launching non-coffee products.

    But not with the Starbucks name. They should think like Toyota and launch brands like Lexus, Prius and Scion.

    Instead, Starbucks seems to be planning line-extensions that will dilute the brand in consumers’ minds. And nothing is worse that a watery cup of Joe.

    Starbucks is also following the dangerous trend of removing names from logos and signs. While visuals are powerful, the reality is that they are much more powerful with the words attached. Remember when Prince changed his name to a symbol only? Bad idea. Other examples include Chili's restaurant using just a chili pepper to Shell gas stations using only the shell.


    The combination of the visual with the name of the brand is more powerful than the visual alone. Companies should never give up the chance to hammer the name along with the image. Only on rare occasions, for simplicity and fashion reasons, should a brand use a visual only. For example, Nike’s swoosh on a shirt or Apple’s shinning apple on a laptop.

    Conventional thinking suggests that words are really not necessary. A typical comment: “The Mermaid is visual shorthand for 'coffee' much like the swoosh is visual shorthand for sports apparel."

    True. But what about the younger generation? Removing the brand name from a logotype makes it more difficult for kids growing up to learn what the visual stands for.

    In some ways, it’s like saying a well-known brand doesn’t need to advertise because “everybody knows what the brand stands for.” But over time, memories decay and without constant reminders even a well-known brand will lose some of its identity.

    Will dropping “Starbucks Coffee” from the logotype hurt the brand tomorrow?

    Probably not. But marketing strategies are not designed for the short term. They’re designed for the long term.

     And in the long term, the Starbucks brand is likely to get burned.