Why Starbucks Rebranded Seattle’s Best Coffee

Starbucks is brewing a fresh image for Seattle’s Best Coffee, a specialty brand it acquired in 2003. The coffee giant this week kicked off a rebranding effort, which includes a simpler, more contemporary logo and design. Starbucks hopes to grow Seattle’s Best into a billion-dollar business by expanding it to fast-food channels, convenience stores, drive-through restaurants and even vending machines this fall. But the coffee chain faces a challenge presented by competitors like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts; both have rolled out lower-priced coffee drinks aimed at penny-pinched consumers. That’s why Starbucks is rounding up its best and brightest marketers to lead the rebranding effort. One of them is Michelle Gass, the former evp-marketing, who oversaw the launch of Via. She has served as president of Seattle’s Best Coffee since September. In an interview with Brandweek, Gass and Robson Grieve, president of Creature, the agency that worked on the rebranding, discussed the thinking behind the new Seattle’s Best image, the challenges the brand faces, and more.
Brandweek: You ran marketing at Starbucks and helped grow Frappuccino into a billion-dollar business before being tapped to oversee Seattle’s Best Coffee in September. How would you characterize the transition?
Michelle Gass:
I’ve been with Starbucks for 13 years now and this has been an unbelievably exciting journey. Over the last seven months, I’ve had the opportunity to totally reinvent not only a business model, but a brand. This is one of those icons in the Seattle area, and it’s steeped in decades of history. We have really great coffee that’s approachable and great to drink and we offer a premium experience.
BW: Starbucks has looked to Seattle’s Best Coffee as its next big potential business for some time now. Why is it launching the rebranding and new logo identity just now?
That wasn’t a deliberate intention on our part. The business was a nice, healthy, steadily growing business and there was just a moment in time when—and I’ve got to credit [our CEO] Howard Schultz—he said there could be something much bigger here. When you look at the history of Starbucks Coffee Corp., we do grow and develop big, emotional, meaningful brands in this world. Not just with Starbucks businesses like Frappuccino or Via [instant coffee], but Seattle’s Best Coffee has the opportunity to be one of those next, big powerful brands that is not only big, but also has a special place in people’s hearts. That is our objective.
BW: So, how did you start? What challenges and category nuances did you have to consider?
We started with the history. When you go back to the early approach, in the 1970s, the brand was very [whimsical] and fun, but some of that got lost and when we assessed the market today, we thought it was time to bring a little bit of that fun back. We don’t have to take the category too seriously.
BW: What’s your goal with the new rebranding and logo effort?
We are looking to create a global identity and this is not just a domestic play. We need a brand that reflects our values, and the ones I’m speaking about are fun, optimism, simplicity and mobility and also showing that with great design. When you see Seattle’s Best Coffee and all of our marketing, you’ll get a very clear picture of what we stand for.

BW: How are you looking to expand it?
Just to back up, our business model is multi-faceted. We have retail cafes, but we also have many key partners. You can find us in [airlines] and in some restaurants, like Burger King. It’s important for us to design a [business model] that honors the great history that we have in Seattle’s Best Coffee, but that also brings forward those attributes that make who we are really special and that invite people [to experience the brand] in expected and unexpected ways.
[And so], we are going to innovate in many new channels and in how we deliver coffee. We have interesting and new partnerships that we’re excited about and we’re working on refreshing our approach to our retail stores and our new products. One example is we recently introduced ready-to-drink iced latte products [in major West Coast grocery, convenience and retail stores].
BW: How did you decide on the creative execution and final logo rebranding?
Robson Grieve:
The thing it boiled down to was as we looked at the business plan, [we realized] that coffee was a bright spot for people and our coffee, [in particular], was a bright spot for people, whether they encountered it at a cafe or at a partner restaurant. We wanted to build a brand around this ideology . . . We wanted to take it and liberate it from this dense to dark structure and put it in a more modern form and turn it into a more flexible, universal symbol of great coffee not rooted in geography or culture, but really from place to place and all of these new places that we need to take it.
BW: Why the whole focus on premium if consumers are cutting back on discretionary spending now?
There is something really big here, something that we have not fully taken advantage of and now we’re unleashing it from the shadow of Starbucks and saying, “Let’s go build another big, iconic coffee brand.” Starbucks has only 4 percent of the coffee [sales] in the U.S., and that’s less than 1 percent worldwide. So there is room for another coffee brand with a different point of view to coexist happily with the Starbucks brand.
RG: When you look at the data about consumer behavior, spending hasn’t stopped. Spending has shifted and so, people are allowing themselves certain treats or things they want and scaling back on other expenses. I think that’s a positive consumer condition [for growth].
BW: What’s the differentiating factor here?
The way to think about it is that it’s really about occasions. So many times when you’re craving a great cup of coffee and can’t get it because you’re in the back of the line or there might not be a Starbucks store nearby, your ability to access that great coffee just isn’t there. So we see this wide open space to go to all of these places where traditionally there has not been a cup of premium coffee and we have an opportunity to turn the model around on its head and say, “It’s okay for a great cup of coffee to show up in new distribution models,” and new ways of thinking about coffee that the world has yet to see.
BW: Any new advertising on the way?
We do have plans under way. Like our voice, [the tone of the ads] will be fun and simple and you’ll see that topic show up in all kinds of places. We’re going to start a two-way conversation with our consumers. We have plans in the works.