Free The Mermaid!

Brand names and logos are funny things. What, exactly, makes them work? How much do they actually influence consumer attitudes and behavior?

The debate came to the forefront once more last week as Starbucks announced a major overhaul of its logo. Gone are the words “Starbucks” and “Coffee,” along with the donut hole and black background it provided for the “Starbucks Siren.”

Now it’s all Siren all the time. As Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO and the visionary behind the brand’s extraordinary success states in an online video announcing the change,  “We’ve allowed her to come out of the circle in a way that I think gives us the freedom and flexibility to think beyond coffee.”

Or, as “Mike P., Senior Creative Designer” at Starbucks posts on the company’s website, “For forty years she’s represented coffee, and now she is the star.”

That’s news to me, and probably to 99% of Starbucks customers. I always thought the Starbucks name represented coffee. Of course, the same 99% of Starbucks customers are unlikely to know the origin of the name that has come to be synonymous with coffee either. (The first mate of the Pequod, the ship from the novel Moby Dick, was Starbuck. One of the original founders wanted the company name to be “Pequod” but was overruled by his partners.)

There are not many among us with the vision, drive and attention to detail of Howard Schultz. Indeed, he’s made some mistakes in the past, but what a brand he’s built. So if Howard wants to change his logo, who are we to argue with him?

In reality, the logo change isn’t likely to make a bit of difference one way or another. Starbucks is a very strong brand. 2010 financial results were terrific. According to the company, total net revenues increased 9.5% to $10.7 billion, driven by domestic and international increases in same store sales, traffic and average ticket.

In the short-term, significant numbers of people will not be persuaded to visit or not visit Starbucks because of a logo change. But of course, short-term wasn’t the point. Starbucks took the “coffee” out of the logo to play in a bigger arena over time. The brand name was most likely taken out in the hope that Starbucks is such an iconic brand, its mermaid and green color so universally recognized and loved, that words and language too were limiting in a global marketplace.

Well, that’s the rationale, anyway. Will “freeing the mermaid” really sell more non-coffee products and spur international growth?

Marketers are always overly enamored with their own brands, inflating their importance – even when those brands are indeed as important as a Starbucks. Most of the brands we work on are far smaller as measured by sales and consumer passion and involvement.  Still, with the forty-year anniversary of Starucks founding upon them, the design move is more likely a celebration of self more than anything else.

Not that this is a bad thing, especially if the company leverages the change to rally its troops.

However, the message of Schultz’s online video announcement, a carefully scripted exercise in designer-speak, was essentially empty. He talked about change, but underlined more emphatically that they Starbucks has not changed.

“So now here we are, and the world has changed and Starbucks has changed. The new interpretation of the logo, at its core, is the exact same essence of the Starbucks experience. And that is, the love we have for our coffee, the relationship we have with our partners and the connection we build with our customers. We’ve allowed her to come out of the circle in a way that I think gives us the freedom and flexibility to think beyond coffee. But make no mistake, we have been, we will continue to be and always will be, the world’s leading purveyor of the highest quality coffee.”

Did it really take “freeing the mermaid” to think beyond coffee? Either way, don’t forget, that’s what we’re all about!

Was the logo “broke?” Did it really need “fixing?”

We marketers spend entirely too much time navel gazing. Far too much money and energy are invested in invested in worrying about issues that seem important, but are really trivial.

That we invest brand names and logos with supernatural power and think of regard them with what sometimes seems like religious zeal is a myth debunked by one of the all time greats of the design business. Paul Rand designed the I.B.M., ABC, Cummins Engine and Westinghouse logos. In his 1993 book, “Design, Form and Chaos,” quoted in a New York Times article his week, he says that, “The belief that a new or updated design will, like a talisman, magically turn around any business is not uncommon.”

We love talking to ourselves, don’t we? Among the logo’s reviews, positive and negative, I found one most amusing. Howard Belk, CCO of the design giant Siegel + Gale, writes in Adweek that, “This new design is an example of elegant simplicity… it eliminates competing elements and leaves the siren to shine. With the name and category gone, she has the center stage all to herself… the siren will emerge as a graphic icon that calls (Starbucks customers) to moments that are about more than just coffee.”

Good luck with that.

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