The Starbucks Evolution—Submerging The Brand

Local Design Experiments to Break
the Cookie-Cutter Mold

During the 1990’s Starbucks was opening locations at a feverish pace, and to maintain the growth they relied on a retail design template for all the new stores opening—mermaids, teak wood ceiling cutouts, rustic illustrations, and earth-tones. In many ways this initial approach helped them to create brand signals that people instantly associated with Starbucks. All of this began to change in 2007 when Starbucks stock began to drop, the company quickly realized that they can no longer treat every location around the world the same.

"The design of Roy Street Coffee opens up the store to the community."

At one point there were two distinct cultural approaches mainstream (represented by Starbucks cookie-cutter approach) and avant-garde (represented by unique counter-mainstream local retail), but as explained in Grant McCracken’s new book Chief Culture Officer we’re now a culture that responds to a third category “restless creativity” based on thousands of creative experiments.  This shift is exactly what Starbucks is hoping to capitalize on for the future.

For we are a culture with a third term, a restless creativity. If once we were a mainstream and avant-garde, now we are a great wilderness, with thousands of little experiments happening everywhere. Point, counterpoint is dead. The struggle between status and cool is over. We are now a culture over-flowing with variety and noise.

-Grant McCracken, in Chief Culture Officer

"15th Ave. Coffee & Tea, a new coffee shop design from Starbucks."

In a smart move to break out of the mainstream, cookie-cutter approach to store design, Starbucks is experimenting with creating unique stores that are more consistent to their local surroundings. The design team is now attempting to removing the sameness that exist where your at a Starbucks in suburban Orange County, California or urban Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan, and custom create locations that complement the neighborhood.

"University Village makes its retail neighbors look slow and out-of-touch."

The store design experiments go as far as removing the Starbucks sign to submerge the brand into the local environment. It’s not about tricking the consumer or even hiding the fact that it’s a Starbucks concept, but rather providing a unique and charming environment that is ultimately consistent with the brand.

Will the retail design experiments work? Only time will tell, but so far Starbucks’ effort to shift the focus to local has helped them turn around the struggling company which reported a first quarter profit of $241.5 million up from last year’s $64.3 million.

Read more about the specifics of some of the redesigns at the NYT - T Magazine and Starbucks success in thinking locally at Fast Company.