Great Brands & their Makers: Starbucks
A look at brands that transcend their visual presence to embed themselves squarely in culture
In the '80s, Italian coffee culture inspired then Director of Marketing Howard Schultz to introduce espresso drinks to American culture. It didn’t take then but its time was yet to come. (En.wikipedia.org, 2018)
Schultz set a tone, distinguishing between American diner Joe and Italian doppio. Every time (and it is often) I see a working-class yankee asking for a venti water to go with a grande dark roast, I am blown away at Schultz’s vision. Some time in the '90s we all agreeably started speaking Italian. And sort of condescend to people who don’t.
What brand has penetrated our society so much as to bring a European-style leisure activity to the US, insist we become nearly bilingual upon ordering and arguably add its own name to the American tripod of baseball, mamas and apple pie?
The visual Starbucks brand has had a few iterations, but each time it stayed true to its original identity: embodiment of
a unique sense of adventure, specifically the seafaring history that reflected Seattle’s position…(Forbes.com. 2018)
Together, let’s break down the brand strategy and the creative partners within.
I found Heckler Associates (then Heckler/Bowker) as one of the first agencies to partner with Starbucks. At this time, I’ll point you to a very compelling case study from which much of this story is derived.
According to CEO Howard Schulz, Terry Heckler
pored over old marine books until he came up with a logo based on an old 16th-century Norse woodcut: a two-tailed mermaid. (Klara, 2018)
Co-founder Gordon Bowker became tired of driving to Vancouver, B.C. from Seattle every month to get good coffee. This motivated him to incorporate the seafaring history, mentioned above, into the original concept. (Hecklerassociates.com, 2018)
Italian-Infused Brand (1985)
As mentioned earlier, marketing director Howard Schultz pitched selling espresso in the non-beverage stores. Separately, Schultz seemed so sold on this that he created Il Giornale. Cue Heckler Associates once more. (Hecklerassociates.com, 2018)
Doug Fast of then Heckler-Bowker created Il Giornale’s logo that was bought by Starbucks. Upon acquisition, Italian culture fused with on-the-go American culture. With great rapidity, stores opened all across the nation.
The Third Place (1996)
To start, here are some questions that verify Starbucks’s influential reach:
Before the '90s, where did you go to catch up with an old friend?
Before the '90s, where did you conduct a job interview outside the office?
Before the '90s, who made your coffee on a long road trip?
If Apple had pushed mobile computing a decade earlier, where would we work outside of the office?
And so, Starbucks became the New Third Place. The brand vision of Starbucks in the late ‘90s was to be the public hang out between work and home. Jerome Conlon writes about this vision at Goodby Silverstein and Partners, likening it to Roman forums, English pubs, Italian piazzas, German bier gardens, Japanese tea houses. Americans, it seemed, lacked a third place. His research revealed that a core opportunity for Starbucks is to position the brand
…where people went to nurture their own sense of soulfulness. To pause in their day, rescript their plans, to reflect on new creative challenges, to have animated conversations. (Anon, 2018)
Lippincott spearheaded the 2011 brand refresh. Much has been written on the “slight imperfection” of the latest design, but I think it was an interesting and compelling design choice. The designers at Lippincott felt the mermaid was too perfect. Bogdan Geana, design partner, says
In the end, just for the face part of the drawing, there’s a slight asymmetry to it. It has a bit more shadow on the right side of the face…It felt a bit more human, and felt less like a perfectly cut mask. (Forbes, 2018)
The wavy mermaid hair from the original Heckler nautical concept was used as a graphic pattern on tumblers. By taking out the text, the siren insists you read it as “Starbucks Coffee.” (Lippincott, 2018)
Back to its Roots
To come full circle, Schultz is pensively making his entrance in Italy. Well aware of the contrast between Starbucks’ grab-and-go culture and Italian mid-day reverence for espresso, Schultz knows
We have to earn the respect. (Yardley, 2018)
And so, in late 2018, a Milan Starbucks will find major competition in the rich history of coffee bars spotted throughout the country since the introduction of the magic bean to the west.* (NPR.org, 2018)
*Somewhere in my memory there’s a fact of Eastern traders coming to Venice and selling coffee. The pope was wary of it until he tasted and blessed it. Perhaps Schultz knew of the unifying effect coffee has and hopes Italians embrace his brand of coffee.
I’ll conclude with some numbers. This solidifies how far-reaching the brand really is.
Download Starbucks Brand Guideline