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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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