De:branding Starbucks logotype

Updated: Oct 10, 2018

In this article we de:brand Starbucks by taking a closer look at the evolution of their logotype and how it reflects the change of brand mythology.

Starbucks was founded in Seattle in 1974 at a time when roller skates were the hottest thing a teenager could be on, disco music was taking over the airwaves, and brand was still just another word for a logotype.

It was a time of rapid changes within the collective identity, which was embracing values that would stand in sharp contrast to the political revolt of the rebellious freedom-thirsty ‘60s, with its counterculture, student uprisings, and feminist and hippie movements. The energy of the counterculture movement began, slowly, to fade away, replaced by slogans used to sell products back to the dreamers who had inspired it. Labelled the “Pepsi generation,” it would pave the way for the individualism and narcissism that would reach full bloom in the 1980s.

Imagining this lost era in social terms is integral to understanding Starbucks’ legacy, how it formed its identity and corporate culture. Starbucks’ three founders were all academics—intellectuals and romantics—children typical of this generation. They had escaped into the world of coffee not in search of political liberation, but on a quest for the perfect roast. Entrepreneurs (they quickly grew from one to ten stores in the area), they were motivated not by growth but by their striving for quality and “coffee perfection.” They saw business as a lifestyle, a path to self-realization. They dedicated their attention to the quality of the coffee beans, teas, and spices they sold. The cappuccinos, café lattés, and colonial ambitions would come later—when Howard Schultz entered the picture.

Starbucks Coffee first logotype 1971-1987
Starbucks Coffee first logotype 1971-1987

Starbucks’ first logotype is an adaptation of a sixteenth-century Norse woodcut. It was discovered by the founders’ designer friend, Terry Heckler, who stumbled upon it while searching through old marine books for nautical imagery to go with the name Starbucks (taken from the coffee-loving character named Starbuck on the ship Pequod in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick). Encircled by the store’s original name and framed in brown, it depicts a rather grim-looking two-tailed mermaid, a Melusine or siren wearing a crown. “That early siren, bare-breasted and Rubenesque, was supposed to be as seductive as coffee itself,” Schultz later wrote in his autobiography.

Sirens are, by way of the Odyssey, written into the canon of literary history as seductive nymphs who, with their singing and implicit promises of sex, awaken the deepest desires of men. Odysseus had his men tie him to the mast of their boat as they sailed by the sirens’ island. The image of the mermaid has a sexually charged history. As early as the fifteenth century, it was used decoratively in European churches and cathedrals as a warning against temptation. But its history goes back even further, to old pagan goddess religions, where it was linked to female fertility, mystery, and power. I digress. In Brandpsycho we will follow her transitions and let her be our guide to the deeper, darker secrets of the Starbucks brand’s mythology—the parts that did not make the official family-friendly version.

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Lusensky, M. Jakob, Brandpsycho - The hidden psychology of brands (Black Books 2018)

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