Starbucks' Serves Up a Very Dumb Idea

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What could Starbucks possibly be thinking?

The international coffee powerhouse has just served up a worse-than- decaffeinated branding strategy by choosing to eliminate its entire name from its logo.

The original logo had the word "Starbucks" on top of a green mermaid image and the word "Coffee" below. Both words were in large letters, all capitalized. Now those words are gone and only a slightly souped-up version of the green mermaid remains. If they wanted to emphasize a new side to their company, Starbucks could have just gotten rid of the word "COFFEE." But get rid of both?

This is one of the stupidest moves I’ve ever seen from an established company.

Remember when Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol (that some later referred to as “Love Symbol #2”)? That didn’t last long. I guess we can call Starbucks’ move its Prince-identity crisis.

My guess is that the inmates have taken over the asylum and decided that the company is simply so well known that a graphic treatment can tell the whole story. And, also, that eliminating the words will permit expansion into new business areas.

This brand confusion seems to originate at the top, where Howard Schultz, Starbucks' long-time CEO, seems on the one hand to be talking about a new future for the company as it approaches its 40th anniversary, but simultaneously insists that the company's aim remains the same: to be the number one purveyor of high-quality coffee in the world.

This much I can guarantee. The wordless logo won't provide Starbucks or anyone else with any clarity, it will reduce recognition and the all important repetition of its name in the marketplace and the minds of consumers –it’s a fundamental branding mistake.

Current and future customers have been totally forgotten in this self-absorbed decision. If the deluge of angry comments about the logo change is any indication, current customers worry that the company they have come to love has abandoned its roots. Future customers risk simply being confused about what it is the company does.

Why? Because it is incredibly hard to build brand name recognition in our competitive world and it is the height of arrogance to ignore the importance of your brand's name and how your customers perceive you. --After all, we think and say the WORD "Starbucks"... we don't think and say, "green blotch with mermaid symbol." In the marketplace, it's the Starbucks’ name that matters.

Logos have to use our common language. You can’t foist some private code onto people just because you think it’s cool, clever or memorable. Logos must re-enforce and support how the customer relates to your brand. Logos are there to remind present and future customers of the brand and the products associated with that brand. Simple...straightforward...and...repeatable is the name of the game. Moreover, in an important way, logos aren’t really even the company’s property alone –they belong to the customer.

Federal Express wisely adapted to how people referred to them when they shortened their official name to "FedEx." Everybody was already saying it anyway. Kentucky Fried Chicken did the same by abbreviating to KFC. People encounter a brand name and a logo and they it make their own.

Good branding is alive to actual needs and customer behavior not the product of pie-in-the-sky concepts that might sound great around the corporate conference table or at high-end spitball sessions.

No one referred to Prince as "Love Symbol #2" or "the artist formerly known as." And no one refers to Starbucks with something other than the name Starbucks.

Coca Cola, which took a wrong marketing turn with New Coke but recovered, has never pulled something as dumb as this --and if anyone could get away with no name, Coke could –after all, its classic red and white colors even shaped our modern image of Santa Claus.

Procter & Gamble was originally a candle maker but that didn’t stop them from branching out into a multitude of products including soap and food without changing their name. Their key was brands. To the extent that the P&G name helps one of their products, they use it, but if it doesn’t help, they don’t and the product stands on its own name.

Bottom line, people buy brands, not companies. Right now, Starbucks’ main brand territory is its coffee chain and related-coffee products. Nothing stops them from launching products without their name attached.

Moreover, there’s significant marketing precedent for using a great company name to introduce and support a new product in the marketplace. Take Kellogg's. Kellogg's makes brand-by-brand decisions on using its name. Cereals get the Kellogg’s monikers, upscale Carrs crackers don’t. Kellogg’s is a food portfolio company and their great name usually adds values to their brands.

Unless Starbucks plans on becoming an anonymous global corporate behemoth owning everything from uranium mines to dentures and occasionally selling coffee, they need to stop this madness now.

Fact is, if your name is recognized favorably don't change it. The first rule of branding is: do no harm.

Blackwater Security Starbucks is not. Starbucks might have gained some short-term publicity with this logo move, but the long-term consequences simply aren’t the worth the current buzz.

And, remember, it's always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who is a principal in Metzger Tantillo Marketing, a recently formed strategic alliance targeted to small business professionals. He also offers his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He is a frequent contributor to Fox News Opinion and the author of the new book, "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."