Will Starbucks 'Unbranding' Start a Chain Reaction?

News that coffee chain Starbucks is to 'unbrand' itself in a few select outlets has been met with mixed reviews.

The idea is that the chain will turn some of its premises into individually branded neighbourhood coffee shops, to find out whether it will do better by adopting a facade that's more like an old-fashioned neighbourhood coffee shop.

In its home-town of Seattle, an outlet called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea will be the test-bed for this new non-brand, selling beer and wine as well as high-end brew.

The emphasis of these new "stealth stores" -- there are a few more planned -- is on creating 'bespoke', neighbourhood shops (each store will reflect its locale) that are part of the community and support local culture through poetry and music nights.

So, a brave attempt to try something new, or a confusing and foolish one?

As one analyst observes, it's odd to think that such a brand-driven business is throwing out the very thing that made it successful. But maybe it's only when you're a brand master that you can afford to take those kind of risks.

The purpose is a little unclear: some see it as a way of shoring up eroding sales -- the company's also taking up 'lean' techniques to cut seconds off the time it takes to whip up a mocha. Others see it as an attempt to grab a section of the market that's less attracted to the big-business, chain-store ethos of 'Bucks. But in doing this, is Starbucks subverting its own brand 'value'?

Comments made by Liz Muller, director of global concept design at Starbucks, just seem to confuse things more. The 15th Ave concept is about "slow coffee", she says, and the design (which some see as unoriginal) was inspired by "the first Starbucks store on Pike Place market that was built 38 years ago."

There's more than a whiff of nostalgia about the idea -- but who's to say Starbucks hasn't measured market sentiment right in this regard? Premier Foods's nostalgic Hovis ads have helped the business to a £123.6m profit for the first six months of this year. Maybe consumers are looking for the comfort of the familiar in turbulent times.

Starbucks changed the market so radically, it's hard to know whether a reversion to the idea of 'slow coffee' would work -- and whether you'd actively seek out a genuinely local coffee shop to hang out in, rather than a 'stealth Starbucks'.

And this is the problem: detractors mind is the sneakiness of the idea, which goes against the overriding trend to greater transparency in business.

Where Starbucks is going, so are other big brands, though: blogger Gladys Santiago identifies this as the evolution of "persuasion knowledge" to cater to a jaded consumer on whom blatant and obvious advertising won't work. She lists Coca-Cola's "open happiness" campaign and Pepsi's allowance of a bastardisation of its brand name by Argentinians as other examples of the measures big brands are taking to "remain relevant".

Marketing genius or an own-goal: what do you think?

(Pic: unwritten cc2.0)