Angela Natividad's Live & Uncensored!

05 January 2011

'...The Freedom + Flexibility to Think Beyond Coffee.'

That's the money line in this dull but inoffensive video of Howard Schultz explaining Starbucks' logo redesign.

And here's how I'll explain it.

Starbucks isn't about coffee.* It's a spirit and a vibe. (The "third place" philosophy comes to mind - I still find that special in a time when most anywhere can be your third place.) Today it hocks branded merch, boasts a respectable musical catalogue, and even punts books, gum and coffee liqueur.

And however much it contrives to artsy, we know the truth: Starbucks is candy. It's bubblegum pop masquerading as indie rock. And it's good at it. This logo revamp is the perfect example: that aesthetic is clearly the fruit of a time marr marked by digital badge-hoarding - but it's still unassuming enough that it'll slide by in our periphery, recognisable and accessible as-needed.

Starbucks is wise enough to know that the hive mind is volatile. Transparency's become our religion, and it pays us just enough lip service to accommodate the mildly suspicious. Look at this page a second time: it's the work of a corporation self-consciously aligned to a communications sphere dominated by blogs and YouTube. Everybody's on a first-name basis, graphics appear in a neat little side column, the CEO sits for an unpretentious video...

...and it passes. It's not hurting anybody, it's just wearing fresh makeup. The company experiments just enough to maintain the evolutionary equivalent of a brisk walk (it was among the first to collabo with Foursquare, for example).

Nothing about this strategy is sex, drugs and rock n' roll, but it keeps Starbucks palatable to all but die-hard café purists (and that's cool, they have Grumpy and the Grove). It's not heedlessly stumbling into new channels without watching its step and considering the perception of its brand in the context of the given medium. And that may be boring, but it's smart.

A logo design that lends the "flexibility to think beyond coffee" is a euphemism for something that seems small (the removal of "Starbucks Coffee") but is significant: it liberates Starbucks from the shackles of defining itself as a coffee company in words (a flagrant lie with no feasible future).

The market will always have room for that kind of Starbucks: recognisable, innocuous, just modern enough to speak our language without raising eyebrows, bearing wares that please and support the company culture.

That's a thousand-year survival strategy that outlives the ephemeral idea of definition by product.

UPDATE, 7 January: I have to revise my opinion because of a convo with my homie Robert Gorell. Basically I concluded that Starbucks is synonymous with coffee for a lot of people, which makes the removal of the words all the more powerful: it need not be said. But as I mentioned above, it still liberates Starbucks from an uneasy and restricting marriage exclusively to coffee on the balance sheet.

Hit tip, Adfreak.


*It did play a leading role in presenting café culture to the American market, but even then it was no caffetteria italiana. It played dress-up, and, captivated, we did too until we got too old. I speculate that this was one factor in the great backlash.

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