Whoa, say brand observers. What’s up? Starbucks recently opened coffee shops in Seattle with unique names totally unrelated to the master Starbucks brand. One outlet is called 15th Ave Coffee and Tea, which Liz Muller, director of global concept design at Starbucks, says will make the chain more accessible. “Is this for every Starbucks?” she says. “No. There is a place for this in specific neighborhoods in the U.S. and potentially globally. Each approach will be different to reflect the neighborhood it is in.”
You heard that right — each approach means Starbucks is expanding such “unbranding.” Morningstar analyst R.J. Hottovy seemed puzzled “since the Starbucks brand has been such an integral part of their success.” And Starbucks is hiding the master brand well; 15th Ave’s web site has no mention of the corporate parent and hints it’s run by a pleasant woman named Jenna.
We asked Branislav Peric, social influence marketing lead at Duke Razorfish in Paris, what he thought. “Unbranded, in the case of Starbucks, does not mean another brand, but compromising the Starbucks’ difference,” Branislav said. “Unbranded also means that this new Starbucks experience will be close to unbranded coffee shops … unpredictable.”
Consumers are building a persuasion defense
Media analyst Gladys Santiago counters Starbucks is making a savvy move, similar to Pepsi’s recent decision to allow consumers in Argentina to misspell its name. It’s all about overcoming consumers’ defenses to your brand, she says, pointing to a landmark 1994 thesis by Marian Friestad and Peter Wright on persuasion knowledge. In simple terms, persuasion knowledge means consumers know that you are trying to seduce them, so they filter every message accordingly. Like a businessman arriving in a foreign hotel who is suddenly approached by an attractive woman, consumers are constantly on guard against the hidden motive.
Consumers know, for instance, that attention, emotion and trust are common tactics in influence. Celebrity endorsements capture attention. Scare tactics spur emotion. Brands provide trust. And when any of these aspects seems suspect — is William Shatner really your gateway to travel savings? Will health care reform really kill old people in death panels? Is Starbucks really so trustworthy that you wouldn’t rather try a little unknown coffee shop? — consumers move on.
Marketers have known for decades that consumers are gun shy about buying from single brand entities. Brand architecture often creates fragmented options to provide the illusion of choice and to remove boredom; stroll down a convenience store beverage aisle or the laundry detergent row in your grocery store and you’ll see hundreds of sub-brands produced by the same five or six corporate parents.
But Starbucks’ move poses a deeper question, as well, of whether Jack Trout’s 1969 concept positioning has finally met its match in the 3,000 marketing claims consumers must now process every day. Positioning held that a marketer could grab a top rung in a consumer’s mind; but if the little brand ladders in our heads are now filled with 1,000 rungs in every product category, perhaps being totally unique is as good a brand position as any. Uniqueness suggests authenticity, and authenticity has value. We hear you can find it on 15th Avenue in Seattle.