Wired recently ran this article on Starbucks’ new design strategy for some of their stores. In a nutshell, Starbucks is creating stores that are designed to reflect the local culture around the store’s physical location, rather than just reflecting Starbucks. The desired result being that Starbucks should feel like your local corner coffee shop, not the generic corporate chain people perceived it as following its mega-expansion across the world. It’s a fascinating move, one that has already produced spectacular design results.*
But what does this move say about the nature of brand today?
If you are in the fields of design, marketing, advertising, and/or hospitality (among others), the word brand has been inescapable for decades. What used to be described as your firm’s culture or identity is now almost solely described as your firm’s brand. Millions upon millions of dollars have been spent on consultants to help companies discover or strengthen their brand. And while it would be hard to argue that a company’s brand is not important, one could argue that this obsession with branding often misses the mark.
So how does Starbucks’ new determination to appear “un-brand-y” fit into the idea of brand in today’s society? Is consumer culture labeling what used to be seen as a strong brand as “generic,” instead desiring a connection with something more authentic and individualized?
Certainly there are a lot of nuances and considerations within this conversation, particularly around generational differences in consumer culture, but in my opinion the focus on authenticity is a welcome trend. And while there is a philosophical discussion around whether what Starbucks is doing is actually just meta-branding, in many ways they are simply returning to their roots by being your local corner coffee shop. And ultimately, aren’t a firm’s roots what a strong brand should invoke?
Photo by Kenta Mabuchi, from Flickr Creative Commons.