in Globalization

Just this past Wednesday, Starbucks released the official redesign of their classic logo. In a bold move somewhat reminiscent of The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, they dropped the name of the company from their logo, freed the iconic, spread-finned siren from her circular prison, and zoomed up on her face (which, according to the senior creative manager at Starbucks, also went through a few fine calibrations of its own). While there’s been no small amount of outcry over this “travesty” of branding from loyal Starbucks enthusiasts (one of whom babbled about her gold-card status in a not-so-subtle threat), I for one think that the new wordless logo is a brave and applause-worthy maneuver toward true globalization on Starbucks’ part.

New Starbucks LogoStraight from the mouth of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, “our new brand identity will give us the freedom and flexibility to explore innovations and new channels of distribution that will keep us in step with our current customers and build strong connections with new customers.” From one angle, it’s pretty clear that Starbucks is going to move beyond caffeinated beverages, hence the removal of the word “coffee” from their logo. From another angle, though, by liberating their brand from the confines of language, building strong connections with new customers is precisely what they’re going to achieve in international markets.

A few months back, a new buzz word started popping up among language professionals in cyber space: globality. Described as the “end-state of globalization,” globality is essentially the ultimate goal of companies engaging in globalization/localization, a state in which their brand and products are equally and accurately represented across countries, cultures, and languages. (Side note: I’ve tried and tried to coin the word “localicious” for this very concept, but it never seemed to catch on.) In this respect, the new Starbucks logo is a huge leap over what may have otherwise been an alienating hurdle. They’re now a lot closer to globality than ever before.

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Consider this: in a country like China, which is where I live, there are some 300 Starbucks locations. Traditionally speaking, the Chinese are not a coffee-drinking people; many of the older generation won’t touch the stuff. But coffee consumption, since the opening of the first Starbucks in China in 1999, has become a popular (if not expensive) pastime among younger Chinese people and businessmen.

Now, in Mandarin Chinese, foreign words or sounds are usually expressed using transliteration, which is when the sounds of words from one language are expressed in the alphabet or writing system of another language. Starbucks, in this case, is written 星巴克 (sheeng-bah-kuh), where the first character means “star” and the following two are a meaningless approximation of the sound “bucks.” Now that’s all fine and dandy, but the problem is, Starbucks stores in China do not have the Chinese name of the company written on their signage. It’s always in English. So while Chinese coffee-lovers know that they’re going to 星巴克, there is no visual and linguistic confirmation of that on the store’s outdoor signs, cups, napkins, etc. All that’s there is the foreign jabberwocky, S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S.

Now, some might say that that’s part of Starbucks’ shtick: that Starbucks’ appeal to young Chinese people is the “western experience,” which is why consumers here are willing to pay 30 RMB (roughly $4.40 USD) for a latte in an appropriately stuffy atmosphere as opposed to 5 RMB (about 75 cents) for local milk tea.

While I will concede the truth of that statement, it’s also important to consider that, according to Common Sense Advisory’s study, “Can’t Read, Won’t Buy”, 74.5% of foreign visitors rarely or never buy products from English websites. Although there is a difference between buying something online from a website you can’t read and visiting a physical store whose logo you can’t read (Starbucks’ menu and everything else is bilingual—in Mandarin and English—for the record), multinational companies absolutely must note and plan for the aversion to “foreignness” when it comes to spending hard-earned money. Add to that the hard-boiled fact that only about 13% of China’s population is formally studying English (as of 2007), and you’ve got a ton of Chinese consumers that will have lost a big part of the full, multisensory Starbucks’ brand experience as a result of the company’s name being printed in English.

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So I think they’ve made the right choice. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words, right? And to any other naysayers who think that removing the company’s name from such a world-renowned logo is the marketing equivalent of hara-kiri, I’ve but one thing to say to you:

A picture of the Apple, Playboy, Windows, and Adidas logos -- all wordless, and recognized around the world.

Now if that ain’t global recognition, I don’t know what is. What do you think?

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  1. Although I understand Starbucks’ reasons, I just don’t find the design that appealing. I think they were right to take off the words, which limited both their product opportunities as well as intelligibility across languages, but something about the design doesn’t feel quite right (and I don’t think it’s just that it changed, because I can imagine some variations I would have liked.)

  2. Hey, Tim! Thanks for the comment.

    Honestly, I don’t know if they took the easy way out. As a writer, I always find it more difficult to tweak someone else’s creation than to create something of my own from scratch — but that’s just me.

    In terms of details, they did do some pretty cool stuff, though. In particular, what stands out the most to me is that the scales on her fins are now more subtly directed toward the Siren’s face, and the inner circle of the logo (implied with negative space between her fins and the bottom of her crown) is more pronounced and clean. Also, they elongated her face a bit to make it more friendly.

    All in all, they’re pretty decent adjustments. Seeing as how its household logo around the world, I think it’s way past the point where they can completely ditch the siren and their colors, so considering their limitations, I don’t think it’s all that bad.

  3. Thanks for the article! I always like a good read, especially when it comes to graphic design critique and global recognition strategies. I have to say that the design really isn’t that awe inspiring (they simply deleted other parts and zoomed in), however it will make it more efficient to spread their brand across the globe now. It works and its fine, I just know that my old design teacher would have chewed them out for taking the easy way out.

    At least they now have “Globality”, right?

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