Starbunked: This Time It Was Starbucks That Got It


by Bryant Simon

Starbucks invented the four-dollar cup of coffee.  But now it faces challenges on all sides, from McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts on the lower end and eco-friendly and fair trade coffeehouses on the higher end.  While trying to reclaim its seat at the top of the caffeine heap, Starbucks has, however, made some curious moves in recent years.

Back in 2007, as Starbucks started to falter, losing market share, and even worse from its standpoint, cultural standing, Howard Schultz, the company’s leader during its glory days when it opened a store somewhere around the world every six hours, returned to the helm.  He promised to get back to basics, meaning getting rid of most of the music, some of the cups, and all of the bearista stuffed animals and focus instead on coffee.

To announce its return to its past, Starbucks took out full-page ads in the New York Times.  With earth-toned burlap bags as the backdrop, the spots boasted of the company’s coffee-ness.  One said only 3 percent of the world’s coffee beans were good enough to make it into a Starbucks blend.  Another bragged, “Our tasters taste 250,000 cups of coffee yearly.”  Then, Starbucks rolled out its Via instant coffee.  Instant coffee.  So much for coffee credentials. 

Around the same time, Starbucks decided to go underground.  It opened two Seattle stores without the Starbucks logo.  One was named 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, the other, Roy Street Coffee.  Both had retro lighting and antiquey mix and match furniture. They sold mirco-brewed beers, regional cheeses, and showed independent films at night.  Each, in others words, tried to masquerade as a local coffee shop, the hippest, most status conferring option in the $4 coffee business of today.  A few weeks ago, Starbucks closed down 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.  It is going to turn the store back into a regular Starbucks. Then Starbucks announced it was changing its logo.  The siren in the middle would expand and go all green.  The words, “Starbucks Coffee,” were to be erased. 

According to Howard Schultz, the new design will allow Starbucks to move “beyond coffee.”  This, of course, seems to contradict Schultz’s earlier pronouncement about getting back to basics.  But even more, it seems to misrepresent the brand now that it has turn forty years old.  It is kind of like a middle-aged makeover.   

Whether Schultz accepts it or not, Starbucks isn’t a trendsetter any more now than a suburban dad who stops by a Starbucks on his way to work in comfortable khakis and blue-button down shirt is a trendsetter.  Today, Starbucks is more of a constant, a beckon of predictability.  Really, a street without a Starbucks is, as one commentator said, “iffy and foreign.”  Yet that is part of its appeal.  Starbucks customers really want Starbucks to be like it always was, with the same logo it had the first time we tried our first grande latte with a dash of caramel.  Every once in a while customers might want to try some new drink or splurge on seasonal themed muffin, but that’s it. 

What the Via packs, stealth stores, and wordless siren show is that Starbucks doesn’t quite get it, or maybe they show that Starbucks is trapped in its own model of economic success.  No one needs a $4 latte, so the companies that sell this useless drink need to provide consumers with reasons to buy.  Eventually, most of these reason won’t work any more, so new reasons need to be manufactured.  In many ways, that is what companies do these days; they are in the business of manufacturing reasons to buy. 

Branders, the people who make logos and the stories that go with them, are in the same business.  Most mature, forty-something, largely successful companies like Starbucks don’t need new logos, but branders have to sell their services, so they manufacture reasons for companies to buy what they sell, even when the buyers don’t need anything. 

Maybe that’s what happened to Starbucks.  It got sold a new logo, a new direction, and a new theme even though it didn’t really need to change all that much.  It just needed to accept itself for who it is – a seller of moderately overpriced, slightly better than average coffee doused with lots of milk and sugar and a renter of dependable, clean, wifi-enabled office space away from the office at reasonable hourly rates.

About the Author:

Bryant Simon is is Professor of History and the Director of American Studies at Temple University and the author of Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks