Case Study : Starbucks 2011 Revamp

When Starbucks rebrands, seventeen thousand stores (in 50 countries) get a face lift. That’s a very big deal. It changes the way the world looks. But it’s costly. Why bother?


Steve Barrett, who heads Starbuck’s 100-strong design studio, puts it in perspective. “While business in 2010 picked up nicely, we have been through a painful period, bottoming in 2009 – a combination of self-inflicted problems, the economic downturn, and better-focused competition from both independent coffee houses and chains like McDonalds. Howard and the leadership team [I paraphrase] have countered with a variety of successful moves (including Frappuccino and VIA) but the biggest is to get back to our roots, to re-charge the power of connections between our partners [read employees] and our customers. We think a rebranding can be a helpful signal to partners and customers alike of a new, emerging Starbucks.”


Barrett and his team closely studied design-driven renewals by other “visible and trusted” brands like Apple and Nike, and made two decisions. The first was to strip away the “verbiage” that cluttered the brand’s  symbol, leaving only its most distinctive visual essence, the siren. (Because the separate wordmark is the primary identifier, “Starbucks” in the symbol too is redundant. And “Coffee,” while important, is increasingly limiting.) The second decision was to significantly extend the brand’s visual presence by creating “an expanded set of visual materials” to work with. For this, Barrett turned to Lippincott’s design team, directed by Connie Birdsall.


Lippincott’s key contributions, then, were:

  • Refinement of the siren symbol (more focus on her more mature, optimistic face, “up close and personal”)
  • fine tuning of the freestanding wordmark’s letterforms
  • new ‘brand cues,’ especially a set of patterns, abstracted from the mermaid (scales, stars, hair) plus type, palette, photography styles and other visual system elements. (We’ll post when available)
  • stronger visual discipline and what Barrett considers to be “a higher design esthetic,” to better manage the brand’s visual integrity worldwide


The visual rebranding has been guided by, and teams with, a fresh articulation of corporate cultural attributes, which I heard as… “Genuine, Thoughtful, Optimistic, Expressive, Engaging.” Seems about right.

The January 5 “soft launch” was an employee-focused public preview, building toward in-store events in March keyed to Starbuck’s 40th anniversary.  (Has it been 40 years? That first taste still seems like yesterday.)