The future of branding is unbranded – ask Starbucks

CJ as a young corporate customer on his laptop in Starbucks
CJ as a young corporate customer on his laptop in Starbucks

In an article I wrote recently about place branding, I proposed that the future of branding is unbranded. You can read that here.

What I was arguing against was homogenisation. Standardisation being used as a byword for branding, that decreases rather than increases consumer choice.

And it would appear that Starbucks, in the US at least would agree with this sentiment. In a great article by Tim Haywards in the UK’s Guardian newspaper he savages them for drifting from Happy hippiedom to the same tired old corporate suit as everyone else on the homogenised high street.

For any brand to be able to survive, it has to evolve or it will die. Like dinosaurs did when they failed to build protection against meteorite strikes. Today’s meteorite strikes are coming from the upstart brands and from locally differentiated, welcoming outlets.

In Seattle, there is already a company calling themselves Seattle’s Best and who’s to say it isn’t? (my cup I had in a plane on the way to Seattle was absolutely horrid – see here) But that doesn’t mean its the most loved, by any stretch of the imagination.

With any brand the product is critical, but so is the tribe in which consuming it puts you. You have to feel good about it. You have to bask in its reflected glorious ‘brandness’ and you have to want to tell your cool friends about it.

I think this is a great move for Starbucks.

I hope they have the nerve to debrand their estate, to give their customers the chance to fall in love with them all over again.

I hope they have the nerve to allow their local people to interpret their offer locally and create cool places for their customers to hang out. If that means they want to appeal to corporate wannabe’s then that’s fine, but design your offer accordingly. If that means they want their hippies back, then that’s just as fine – again, design accordingly.

The future of branding maybe isn’t unbranded, but it has to listen to its customers needs and be flexible as hell in delivering what they want or it will go the way of the dinosaurs.

Thanks to Jayne Wilson for the use of the picture of CJ on a Laptop in Starbucks. You can see more of her fine work here.

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4 thoughts on “The future of branding is unbranded – ask Starbucks

  1. John, my understanding was that there had been a backlash in the USA against Starbucks and that they were trying to get back to community shops – hence the renaming to ’15th Street’ and the like. They are little communities – and their announcement here that they are rolling out Wifi suggests that they are going for business users too – and getting that dwell time up. Dwell time = more sales? Tim

    1. Cheers Tim

      I think you’re right that there was a backlash against Starbucks, but in my opinion, that was because they stood for everything bad about corporate America. I don’t think they are as prevalent or viewed as badly in UK, which is why the footnote to the Guardian article says they are not having such a radical rethink over here.

      Wifi is now almost a ‘must have’ rather than a luxury. I find it hard to believe they didn’t all have them anyway. Wifi and laptops used to be a symbol of ‘corporateness’ but they have just become the next thing along from mobiles/cellphones. So many young people now have them that it has diminished their status to the point of their being the norm rather than the exception.

      The analogy we use a lot is the choice of beer you go for when you go into a pub. What we found in the US (as you know) was that we always went local to try out the local (and less corporate) offer. I also do the same at home, to diminish my ‘beer miles’ and just to be outside of the generic beer crowd.

      This is a last big roll of the dice for Starbucks. It’s a brave one that the likes of Woolworths never had the nerve to take, so I wish them every bit of good luck – and I know as a Starbucks ‘addict’, you do too.

  2. Starbucks should do what the Spanish brand Camper (http://www.camper.com/) is doing for shoes. When Starbucks started losing popularity and becoming to ubiquitous to be cool anymore, they should have considered this ‘localized branding’ approach. I hope they are not too big to be smart and nimble.

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