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Starbucks Rebrand: At Age 40, a Siren’s Coming-Out Party

Posted by: Craig Stout on January 06, 2011

Release the mermaid! In an effort to freshen the look of its brand, Starbucks yesterday announced a design evolution of its ubiquitous green logo: The “Siren” illustration has been liberated from the black ring. Gone, too, is the Starbucks Coffee logotype.

The Siren has been the symbol at the center of the Starbucks brand mark for 40 years, and yet has never been used as a central figure or story of the Starbucks brand heritage. The connection from the Siren mermaid and the Starbucks brand name was never widely communicated to consumers. Sure, it was common knowledge in branding circles (and among English lit majors) that the name comes from a coffee-swilling old salt in the novel Moby Dick. And industry insiders know the mermaid logo is derived from Seattle's seafaring history. But most Starbucks customers have grown to love this unique name and logo without much context or explanation.

The new, simple use of the logo is a natural evolution, in keeping with category leaders whose iconic symbols represent the brand without needing their names represented — as was done with the Nike swoosh, the Apple logo and the AT&T globe. Swapping the English language for a visual lingua franca should help Starbucks transcend its American heritage globally, freeing its internationally recognized icon to communicate the brand with clarity of identity.

What is most interesting about the change is the way it was introduced. Generally rebrands are announced via broadcast advertising or in print; unveiling a new logo is usually a part of a major media spend. But Starbucks has historically avoided mass media advertising — so its online video announcement was true to its established communication style. And what’s uniquely savvy about this launch is the amount of explanation around the rationale for the rebrand. CEO Howard Schultz speaks at length about the business aspirations of Starbucks, the history of the brand logo and why Starbucks made the changes it did. Creative managers and writers from the Starbucks brand team have blog posts around the details of the design refinements and the lore of the brand. In the age of social media and increasing, real-time consumer involvement in brands’ stories, excessive communication and transparency may become mandatory when making a brand change.

That’s why it’s such a smart move for Starbucks to contextualize and explain, not just drop the logo with a flashy campaign. Perhaps it was done in response to the lessons learned by Gap after its aborted brand evolution, where there was little or no communication of the rationale for the change. But unlike the Gap fiasco, this rebrand is elegant, visually intelligent and far from an overreach. The freed Siren makes sense and is well designed — in stark contrast to the visual abomination of the logo created for Gap.

While there will inevitably be some initial criticism, it seems unlikely there will be Facebook hate pages dedicated to the new Starbucks logo as was done with Gap. As brands are living and breathing entities, every organization needs to continually update their look in some way. The new Starbucks logo is an appropriate evolution from where the brand has been, and its launch seems to be fairly well orchestrated. Raise a glass to toast Starbucks’ skill in avoiding the pitfalls of past rebranding efforts.

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