“Call me Ishmael.” Thoughts about Logos and Brand Marketing

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick opens with one of the most famous lines in American literature, “Call me Ishmael.” The novel is also the inspiration for the logo of Howard Schultz’s Starbucks coffee empire. The siren acknowledges both the seafaring nature of the historic coffee business and the irresistible lure of Starbucks coffee.  Moreover, Starbuck was the first mate on the story’s legendary sailing ship Pequod.

To mark its 40th anniversary, Starbucks has redesigned the familiar logo, removing both the name “Starbucks” and the reference to “Coffee.” As a recent Knowledge@Wharton article asks: Logo Overhaul: Will Customers Still Answer the Siren Call of Starbucks? The simple answer is of course they will, because Starbucks is a loved brand that offers a social–coffee experience that few businesses have been able to develop or sustain.

My view is that redesigning logos is generally a poor investment and a distraction.  Logo redevelopment may be justified under the flag of re-branding, changing business mix or internal leadership; all are examples of over-intellectualization of what is needed to create and sustain a great brand.

To me, a brand is the bundle of attributes that a product or services promises and delivers every day to its customers. Add to that definition that it does so profitably, which in turn means the brand’s message is meaningful, clear, interruptive and memorable and its pricing is value-based.

The Wharton article is worth reading because it embodies a rich discussion of issues to be considered when engaging in any brand development or redevelopment initiative.  Some key considerations covered in the article include:

  1. Significant shift in strategic business mix: Starbucks’ business mix has changed, and will continue to evolve, beyond coffee, so management apparently believed the “Starbucks Coffee” moniker was limiting.
  2. International growth: Global expansion made translating the Starbucks message into different cultures and languages challenging. The goal was to simplify. Apparently management argued that the symbolism of the name “Starbucks” would not translate well.
  3. Dilution of brand message: By not standing for what made a business great to begin with or what management believes will make a great business, customers will not understand why the product or service claims are uniquely the best choice and thus consider supporting competitive brands. Clearly, company management decided to accept this risk.
  4. Backlash by loyal brand fan. The article cites a study by Vikas Mittal from Rice University’s Jones School that supports this conclusion. Backlash to change is a risk that must be considered carefully as businesses expand geographically and culturally.

Strategically there are other options to logo redesign and the management distraction caused by this activity in managing brands. The first and most significant principle of branding is to engage current and prospective customers.  One must question whether there is a significant flaw in the existing bundle of communications and deliverables that limits growth and/or greater opportunity in a strategic shift of all brand-related elements.

In my experience, logo design is one of the most over-emphasized brand development elements and one of the least significant attributes of brand experience. My recommendation is to treat, and invest in, this activity with the limited weight it deserves in the total brand decision-building program.

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