non-branding branding: starbucks in wolves’ clothing?

I read with great interest this Seattle Times article about Starbucks going hyperlocal by rebranding some of its shops without any Starbucks branding. The throwback 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea test store will offer nary a Starbucks logo and even serve wine and beer as some traditional neighborhood coffeehouses do.

It will launch as the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area stores that will bear the names of their neighborhoods rather than the 16,000-store chain to which they belong, the Times’ Melissa Anderson writes, and if successful will replicate in other markets. Starbucks’ SVP of global design, Tim Pfeiffer, notes each store intends to have a community personality, to look and feel more like an organic part of a neighborhood than a chain store.

But while going neighborhood and hyperlocal are things I applaud, what does it say about Starbucks’ belief in its own branding that it rolls these out each under its own customized name almost as stealth shops? Are they admitting people equate the name Starbucks with chain stores that spread like kudzu and often choke out native coffeehouses? In Seattle and Vancouver, for example, Starbucks are so abundant that it’s clear they are looking for overall market share rather than same-store sales, the usual indicator of an individual establishment’s success.

Reaction among actual neighborhood coffeeshops ranged from bemusement to anger — the latter because Starbucks representatives would essentially squat in their stores and observe goings-on. Starbucks reps spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, ‘Observation,’ said Dan Ollis, who owns soon-to-be neighbor Victrola Coffee Roasters. So apparently the rebranding also involves culling the best ideas of the competition plus non-use of the Starbucks name with all the economy-of-scale advantages the company famously leverages?

Granted, existing businesses launch new units all the time, but usually because they see a niche or void in the market. I’m no fan of Wal-Mart, but when they rolled out Sam’s Clubs, it found a ready audience for shoppers’ clubs with bulk sales (and named it after founder Sam Walton). Sometimes it’s aspirational, like when FX Matt Brewery started its Saranac line of craft brews to appeal to those who wouldn’t deign swallow Utica Club. But Starbucks isn’t looking at serving a niche; it’s trying to overpower an existing one. It’s not trying to save the neighborhood coffeehouse as much as eliminate existing neighborhood coffeehouses.

If you work in higher education, imagine a scenario where Harvard sent representatives to observe your campus for a year, then built a college right next door and used its deep pockets and superior marketing budget to poach your best students. 15th Avenue and its brethren look like wolves in sheeps’ clothing meant to thin the herd, not add new customer experiences. The next time I’m in Seattle, I plan to make a beeline to Victrola Coffee Roasters to show my support. Assuming it survives that long.



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5 responses to “non-branding branding: starbucks in wolves’ clothing?

  1. This is an interesting, if disingenuous, approach to branding, or non-branding or unbranding. I hope it doesn’t catch on.

  2. Kate

    Another great post. Thanks for writing about this. I’m not sure I would have heard about it otherwise. I really like to patronize the local guy so it’s good to know I need to be aware of potential “posers”. Also, loved the reference to Saranac 😉 Brought a smile to my Monday morning!

  3. lizzy

    I suspect that while they’ll be ‘unbranded’ shops, somehow consumers will be able to tell that they’re actually in Starbucks. Better yet, savvy local shops will post things like their business licenses, trade name registration, etc., in conspicuous places to show that they’re NOT Starbucks.

    This all, of course, may lead others to do what we rural folk with no nearby Starbucks have been doing all along: buying your morning coffee at the gas station.

  4. Oh, my word. This takes the cake. Starbucks is ridiculous! Apparently they won’t be using the automatic espresso machines they have in their branded stores. Hopefully all of the good baristas in the world will have the sense not to work for them, and they’ll be left serving coffee drinks with espresso that pulled too quickly.

    Starbucks isn’t that present here in Portland, thankfully. We’re too loyal to our Stumptown to allow it.

  5. insidetimshead

    ANDREW: Let’s all hope! And you’re right that maybe ‘unbranding’ is a better term for it.

    KATE: I do wonder how likely those of us patronizing moms and pops would be fooled? Does anyone really think not calling it Starbucks, when everyone finds out it’s Starbucks, will buy them social capital? I suspect the opposite. Oh, and I love Saranac!

    LIZZY: The backlash could be interesting. And I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I’m pretty likely to hit Dunkin Donuts or Tim Hortons; they are what they are. Still, gas-station coffee does have that je ne sais quoi, and seemingly 10x the caffeine.

    LAURA: Good for Portland! The whole lack of authenticity in this scheme is troubling. Reminds me in a way of the Wal-Marting Across America blog hoax. When will big business learn?

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