Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mermaid Gets a Makeover: Starbucks' Search for Authenticity

Okay, so Starbucks’ logo is actually a siren, not a mermaid, but she might as well be, given the watering down (no pun intended) of the sexy, seductive symbol of a siren to a much less dangerous, more mainstream-pleasing, fantasy water creature. But lest I stray too far from the topic at hand, let’s return to Starbucks’ recent design makeover.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, as I have, that your local coffee shop was closed for a week or so and when it reopened, had not only a new façade, but an entirely new interior design concept. Starbucks ditched the over-stuffed green velvet chairs in favor of more modern stainless-steel furniture, community tales and an overall rustic, wooded feel. Walking into a newly renovated “Bucks” is like wandering into a log cabin or mountain lodge. The wainscoting on the walls is made to look like rough, unfinished, natural wood planks. So natural in fact, you must take care not to brush up against the wallcovering, lest you end up with splinters in your knees and elbows! Furthermore, the new design incorporates a dark, open grain, rustic-looking veneer on the tabletops and a faux reclaimed wood plank as the bar countertop.

Even the traditional color scheme is gone. The reds, greens, browns and blues (each color symbolizing a different part of the coffee-making process) were replaced with a more neutral palette, which is ironically (and perhaps intentionally) similar to the scheme of the original Pike Place Market shop and a handful of the first few Starbucks outlets. The new color palette is almost completely devoid of any spectral color, with shades of browns and grays filling the space almost entirely and sepia-saturated photographs of coffee beans and coffee growers beckoning caffeinated customers back to the “source” of Starbucks’ success: the impression of an authentic European coffee experience.

So what do all these changes mean? And what do they signal for the current and future state of the coffee corporation? Well, we all know Starbucks saw a decline in stores and sales starting in 2008 as a result of the economic downturn, and in my opinion, all these surface changes are designed to signal a return to “authenticity.” The rough-hewn bark slab on the wall screams: “I’m natural, authentic—splinters and all!” And you can’t get much more basic, authentic and natural than using a chunk of tree as a countertop. Even the open grain (versus the tight grain, highly polished veneers from before) symbolizes a more rustic, natural experience. Gone is the colorful McWorld palette that has now become synonymous with the mass-market, globalized, sub-urbanized, middling, “common” customer. We are even seeing more of the original siren logo above the doorpost, on the outdoor umbrellas and even on store managers’ laptop computers.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time Starbucks modified its look and its logo. The first adjustment came in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, right before the company went public.(1) In a move to make Starbucks more mainstream, Howard Shultz had graphic designers cover up the body of Starbucks’ siren, erasing her breasts and nipples and sharpening the focus on her face, which was now drawn in a less seductive, dangerous way, turning the sexy siren into a pleasant mermaid. So it’s not surprising that in its search for a return to “authenticity,” Starbucks would also return to its original logo. In the updated stores, we now see more of the mermaid’s body, even the round silhouette of her breasts, though I greatly doubt her nipples will ever return to the mainstream. There are far too many children sipping hot chocolate from green and white cups and pre-adolescents slurping down Frappuccinos for Starbucks to risk offending parents and alienate the next generation of sugar-rush caffeine addicts willing to pay 4 bucks a hit—uh, I mean shot.

(1)  See also Bryant Simon's Everything but the Coffee.

**Someone asked about the laptop photo above.  Here is my response to that comment:  That's actually the laptop of a Starbucks manager.  He stepped away for a moment which gave me the opportunity to snap the photo!  I think it's probably some kind of company-issued laptop cover, perhaps given with company computers?  Perhaps any Baristas out there can correct me if I'm wrong...

1 comment:

  1. Where did you get that awesome laptop sticker?