Why Starbucks' Logo Change Doesn't Equate to Brand Change

The Siren Is Evolving to Support a New Growth Agenda, and Rightly So

By Published on .

Carl Johnson
Carl Johnson
Over four decades, Starbucks has grown from a single Seattle coffeehouse to a $10 billion global retailer of coffee as well as a variety of other food and beverage products. The recent contretemps over Starbucks' decision to evolve its iconic siren logo is instructive on three fronts, since it:

  1. demonstrates the deep emotional bonds that Starbucks has created with consumers over the past 40 years;

  2. reveals a fundamental but common misunderstanding of the difference between trademarks and brands;

  3. provides useful leadership lessons on the importance of aligning all communication elements to signal a company's evolving strategic direction, particularly in cases where the company's name, its principal trademark and its core brand are all one and the same.

On the first point, Howard Schultz and his management team have done an outstanding job for decades in creating the strong combination of emotional, functional and customer-experience elements that comprise Starbucks. The world's most valuable trademarks virtually always share a similar combination. Starbucks accomplished its iconic status by promising -- and delivering -- outstanding products and an in-store experience that is both emotionally and physically satisfying. For many years, Starbucks had no conventional advertising; the products, experience and word-of-mouth were enough to establish and build the business.

For millions of consumers worldwide, the coffee-consuming occasion was entirely redefined, forever altered for the good. Whenever such an iconic company -- whether Apple, Coca-Cola or Starbucks -- materially changes any element in this magic mix, for example, product, trademark, logo or advertising, there is likely to be an outcry, sometimes justified. It is the passion held by its consumers that precipitates the outcry. Such a reaction is not unexpected, but if the change is strategically sound and doesn't threaten the emotional bonds forged with its consumers, the company should stay the course.

There are, of course, multiple, well-known examples of changes gone wrong that were reversed following an outcry. In the case of New Coke, the decision was apparently not sound, as the many consumers who preferred the original Coca-Cola formula versus the smoother taste of New Coke or Pepsi had nowhere to go and hence revolted. An essential element of a century-old brand had been violated, in this case the taste experience -- without their consent. The putative change in Gap's logo may have been made for good reasons, but the strategic reason was neither evident to Gap passionistas nor well communicated to other consumers. Hence, a big pushback. PepsiCo's short-lived change in its iconic Tropicana packaging a couple of years ago falls into the same category and was reversed shortly afterward.

It is surprising how often there is confusion over the differences between trademarks and brands. This confusion exists among the public and often even in companies with strong marketing skills. A trademark identifies the source of a product and distinguishes it from the products of competitors. Trademarks also convey a promise of a consistent level of product quality. Ideally, a trademark is memorable, and can provide differentiating emotional and functional equities.

Trademarks can take several forms: words or "brand names," such as Starbucks; logos and designs, such as Starbucks' siren; slogans and taglines, such as Campbell's M'm! M'm! Good!; product and packaging configurations, such as the shape of Goldfish crackers.

A brand, meanwhile, is the sum total of brand elements and equities, and in short is the promise a company makes to its customers. A brand encompasses its trademark, and can include other brand elements such as logos, slogans, graphic designs and packaging. A brand also incorporates a wide range of marketing decisions, such as competitive positioning, target users, and pricing, which influence consumer associations with a brand and contribute to the constellation of values and imagery, or equities, that the brand represents.

Today Starbucks wants to expand its strategic vision to include categories beyond its core coffee, tea and related products, while broadening its distribution channels. It is entirely appropriate to ensure that all marketing platforms, and all communication elements -- including Starbucks' trademarks -- are aligned against this broadened vision. Based on publicly available information, the company is not proposing to change the brand Starbucks coffee in any way. The change is about one of Starbucks' trademarks, namely its logo of a sea maiden.

More broadly, Starbucks' evolution provides telling lessons both in corporate leadership and strategic management of a company's trademarks, usually among its most valuable assets. One can argue over the aesthetics of the Starbucks siren, but the case for decoupling the logo from coffee is compelling. Trademarks must be nurtured and managed strategically. Core elements that convey key brand planks, including visual equities, need to be maintained so they can recognizably anchor the brand, even as other elements are updated to provide openings for new growth areas.

Starbucks remains the company's name and principal trademark. Today, the Starbucks trademark is applied to its major product lines, principally coffee. The siren logo is also a primary and corporate trademark. Until now, it has been used largely in conjunction with the core brand, Starbucks coffee. Now, the decision has been made to broaden the company's strategy to provide a platform for a new generation of products and services. The siren logo, like Apple's apple or Nike's swoosh, has the ability to play a broader strategic role: to signal and support a new growth agenda.

Kudos to Howard and his team.

Carl Johnson is a senior VP at Campbell Soup Co. and formerly a senior operating executive at Kraft Foods. He notes that these views are his own as an industry observer and are not meant to represent the views of the Campbell Soup Co.
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