Innovation & Design

Starbucks' Retro Logo


How Starbucks is using a special brown logo to evoke the chain's beginnings and restore some goodwill for the brand

Brown is certainly a color that communicates coffee. So, when you order a cup of the new Pike Place coffee at Starbucks (SBUX) this week, it doesn't seem out of place to see a special brown logo on the cup and paper sleeve. Except that, as everyone knows, Starbucks' iconic logo is green. So why change such a successful corporate symbol?

The image of the twin-tailed mermaid inside the brown medallion harkens back to the chain's 1971 beginnings. The logo has evolved over the years, going from brown to green in 1987. This is the second time in three years Starbucks has trotted out the brown mermaid, inspired by a Norse woodcut. Back in 2006, she was resurrected to mark the chain's 35th anniversary. This time, she is a messenger for Chairman Howard Schultz, who is trying to restore some of the goodwill and warm feelings for the brand that have gone by the wayside because of increasing coffee prices, machine-made lattes, and bad press.

Starbucks plans to use the logo on all its cups for about eight weeks. It will remain in ads and as the logo for Pike Place bags of coffee. The new blend, which will be available in every store, has been crafted for a smoother, cleaner finish than many of the rotating blends Starbucks has traditionally carried week to week. This was done to combat the chief criticism of the company's coffee by reviewers, including Consumer Reports, that it tastes "burned."

"Nostalgia Effort"

"Now that Howard Schultz is back at the helm, this is definitely a nostalgia effort and a strong push to get back to the core values of the company," says Rob Giampietro of New York design firm Giampietro + Smith, referring to the reintroduction of an old icon. The tagline below the cup's sleeve reads: "Roasting coffee since 1971." Starbucks spokesperson Bridget Baker says, "It's a good time to celebrate our heritage."

Giampietro compares the move with those of baseball teams that have their players don throwback uniforms. The retro nods are meant to enliven the mood of patrons who, even while enjoying a visit to the ballpark, may resent paying $100 or more for a family of three to see a nine-inning game. "Old logos can engender a brand's story and history, and spark or rekindle an emotional bond," says independent Los Angeles-based marketing consultant Dennis Keene.

Tapping a logo change to convey a corporate strategy is not a fresh idea. In 2000, then-Ford CEO Jacques Nasser took the Ford Blue Oval logo off the headquarters building in Dearborn, Mich., and replaced it with a script rendering of "The Ford Motor Co." that was also used in corporate advertising. The move was meant to convey that Ford (F) was not just blue-oval Ford products, but also Jaguars, Volvos, Land Rovers, and the myriad of other outfits Nasser was buying to diversify the company's interests. After Bill Ford took over as CEO in 2001, he embarked on a strategy meant to take Ford "back to the basics." He directed that the blue-oval Ford brand logo be rehung on the company's building to convey that the brand was the one that would carry the corporation back to health. Ford has continued to struggle financially, but under a new CEO, Alan Mulally, the company has embarked on a worldwide reemphasis of the Ford blue-oval brand. In the meantime, it has sold Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin. "The move was done so no one inside the company, especially, would have any doubt about what brand will lead our recovery," says Bill Ford, now chairman.

Giving Up Green?

Is there a danger that, by rolling out the old logo once again, Starbucks might overplay the authenticity card? "There is never a danger in reminding your employees or your customers of your authenticity as long as you also keep moving forward in new, surprising ways that are relevant to people," says Brian Collins, principal of the New York-based strategic branding firm Collins:. "When it's done right—and consistently—it can be the smartest way to market an established brand."

It's unlikely that Starbucks would ever consider going brown for good. The color is muddy and almost makes the cup look like it came from another company altogether. "As a color it's so much less distinguished than the green, and the green conveys both a friendlier and more upscale image," says Giampietro. "And it's so Italian!" he adds, referring to Starbucks' inspiration for the color, the Italian flag.

But Starbucks' throwback logo is fodder for the bloggers: They're poking fun at Schultz's accommodation of conservative coffee drinkers. In the original logo, the twin-tailed Greek mermaid showed her navel and bare breasts. In 2006, when the logo was originally revived, the chain received complaints about the "decency" of the logo and, despite the chairman's well-known liberal politics, the lady grew long hair to cover her indecency. That's the version we have today. Italians would never have given in—or complained in the first place.

Return to the April 28 BusinessWeek Magazine Table of Contents.

Kiley is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Detroit bureau.

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