Big in Japan? The New Starbucks Logo Could Assist Company's Asian Expansion

Psychological research suggests the new look was designed with an eye on China--and beyond.

Starbucks coffee

Was last week's redesign of the Starbucks logo an unmitigated disaster (cf. Gap, Tropicana), or a surprisingly canny move? There's always the hue and cry of the blogosphere to gauge a quick reaction, but for a more measured approach, we have something called science. Professors of marketing at several U.S. universities have been studying the effects of redesign--and on certain types of redesign--on committed and non-committed customers, and what they've found suggests that Starbucks might succeed where Gap and Tropicana failed.

The researchers have recently conducted two studies, the first of which was published last year, the second of which is forthcoming this spring. The first study, from Michael Walsh of West Virginia University, Karen Winterich of Texas A&M, and Vikas Mittal of Rice University, asked broadly: "Do logo designs help or hurt your brand?" Both--and neither--was the answer. In short, it depends who you want to attract.

The study, published last year in the Journal of Product & Brand Management, looked at the effects of altered Adidas and New Balance logos on 632 respondents. What the team found was that reaction to the redesign depended on how deeply people felt already to the brand. Those who were committed to the brand felt violated by the redesign; those who weren't so committed, however, actually tended to like the new look. The intriguing finding here is that redesigns don't quite alter our perception of the brand itself, so much as our relationship with it. "Those with strong brand commitment will see the original brand logo-- and the associations--as representing themselves and the integral relationship they have with the brand," the researchers wrote in the article. "They are likely to view a change in the logo, which affects these associations, as threatening their self-brand connections and relationships." Mittal, in a press release, speaks of a "psychological contract between the brand and the consumer."

The second study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Marketing, is much more specific in its focus, and has a more direct bearing on the Starbucks maneuver. It looked at a very specific graphic design choice: the shift from a more angular logo to one with softer, rounder shapes. The study finds that this particular redesign is, in the words of a press release, "more acceptable in interdependent and collectivist cultures--often found in Asian countries, such as India and China--than in Western countries, which tend to have a more independent or individualistic culture." Again, in the words of Mittal: "Research in aesthetics shows that interdependent cultures prefer rounded shapes as they represent harmony, which is consistent with an interdependent view of the world ... Those countries tend to have a higher percentage of rounded logos compared with individualistic countries, and logos and product shapes that are rounded are more acceptable and embraced in those cultures."

Mittal's conclusion suggests that Starbucks, which plans to grow its presence in Asia, may have made a canny move with that market in mind. Not only does removing the name of the brand from the logo untether it from the English speaking world, but by zooming in on the ethereal mermaid figure in the center of the original logo, the new one is definitely wavier, rounder even. If Mittal and his colleagues' assessment is to be believed, the Starbucks redesign--subtle enough to not alienate (most of) its core, and wavy enough to win over those harmony-loving Asian markets--might just be brilliant.

We've reached out to Starbucks for comment and to learn more about whether the redesign was dreamed up specifically with Asia in mind. The coffee company did not immediately respond to our request, but as soon as it does, we'll update this post.

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