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Losing to gain: Balancing style and texture in the Starbucks logo

Abstract

In January 2011 Starbucks unveiled a new design for its ubiquitous logo, which ‘freed’ the iconic siren from the “Starbucks Coffee” wordmark. The new logo was introduced in an official video by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who stated that the new design “embraces and respects our heritage” and at the same time allows the siren to “come out of the circle in a way that [...] gives us the freedom to think beyond coffee” (A look at the future of Starbucks, 2011). The history of the Starbucks logo is one of systematic rebranding in the wake of the coffee company’s progressive economic expansion and international outreach. Over time, the logo has been increasingly stylized, with a particular emphasis on foregrounding the appeal of its feminine image while also taming its more overtly sexualized features (Aiello, 2013). With its most recent redesign, and in trend with other corporate brands, the logo has become ‘purely’ visual. In this paper, I note how the increasing stylization of the Starbucks logo design goes hand in hand with a much less publicized though noticeable trend in how the logo is rendered and placed in the material contexts of its display on storefronts, both in city streets and shopping malls. Specifically, as the logo’s graphic features have progressively ‘lost’ key cues to become more streamlined and indeed ‘pure’, Starbucks has devised a global design strategy to communicate locality across a number of stores (Aiello and Dickinson, 2014 in press) and therefore also confer more ‘texture’ to its iconic logo (cf. Djonov and Van Leeuwen, 2011). Through several examples of Starbucks logos that I have physically encountered in cities like Hong Kong, Seattle and London, I offer a social semiotic analysis that takes into account not only changes in the logo’s graphic features (its stylization) but also variations in its material articulation (its texturization). From a visual and multimodal standpoint, stylization often entails techniques aimed at ‘cleansing’ images from inappropriate characteristics (Cameron, 2000), while texturization deploys cues aimed at invoking the emplaced, embodied and overall sensorial qualities of semiotic resources (Aiello and Pauwels, 2014 in press). While these two processes may seem to be ad odds with one other, they may in fact work together to reconcile seemingly contradictory demands of contemporary capitalism. In balancing style and texture, the textual and material design of the Starbucks logo may deploy meaning potentials of both genericity and diversity, distance and connection, and authoritativeness and intimacy.

References

Aiello, G. (2013). Fra abiezione e stilizzazione: Corpi femminili, corpi lesbici e corpi queer nella comunicazione visiva globale. AG About Gender – Rivista Internazionale di Studi di Genere, special issue “La teoria queer e la costruzione della realtà sociale”, 2(3), 145‐163.

Aiello, G. and Dickinson, G. (2014 in press). Beyond authenticity: Locality in the global redesign of Starbucks stores. Visual Communication, special issue “Difference and Globalization”, 13(3).

Aiello, G. and Pauwels, L. (2014 in press). Guest editorial: Difference and globalization. Visual Communication, special issue “Difference and Globalization”, 13(3).

A look at the future of Starbucks (2011, March 7). Starbucks.com. Retrieved June 10, 2014 from http://www.starbucks.com/preview

Cameron, D. (2000). Styling the worker: Gender and the commodification of language in the globalized service economy. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(3), 323– 347.

Djonov, E. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2011). The semiotics of texture: From tactile to visual. Visual Communication, 10(4), 541‐564.