The World’s Local Coffee Shop

Starbucks Seattle Interior

When you go into Starbucks to order your next Pumpkin Spice Latte how much will you be thinking about store design? The truthful answer is probably not a great deal. Lets look at it another way. How do you feel when you walk into store? You feel comfortable, positive about the day, maybe even enjoying yourself during the work day? Strange.

These environmentally induced good vibes are no coincidence, it is because you are now inhabiting what Starbucks call the ‘Third Space’, their pioneering approach to retail and merchandising design that allows the brand to replicate the same emotion in its customers around the globe, whether that be those customers enjoying their beverage in the Willy Wonka style wonderland of a flagship store in Seattle (which approaches its 1 year anniversary this year), those getting a quick hit at one of the new ‘Espresso Shot’ stores trialling this year or simply those in their trusted local store round the corner.

To understand how they have arrived at the formula we need to take a trip back in time and look at the roots of another servery superbrand. In 1950s America the brothers McDonald are engineering a concept for food franchising built around the principle of architectural guidelines, a literal blueprint that allows for the creation of restaurants that look and taste the same wherever the customer is, somewhere where the customer knows they will enjoy food they know in familiar, surroundings.

Fast-forward to the 2000s, the selling of reassurance has now developed into an aggressive commercial strategy used by multiple companies and is inspiring
a wave of popular criticism of what is now called the fast-food industry. Led by mainstream publications such as Naomi Klein’s No Logo the umbrella approach to store design has become a bogeyman that is corrupting the public’s soul.

Undoubtably this kind of rhetoric delights publishers but in pure design terms it is certainly a truism that corporates were thinking more bottom line than brand. Mass produced interior kits were allowing for rapid ambient brand roll-out but for Starbucks the result was not one of customer satisfaction, rather that the Mermaid was now seen as being in cahoots with the clown and the Colonel. In the event it was not anti-consumerism that changed the situation, it was the global economic meltdown. Starbucks was hit hard and had to close a considerable number of stores, which provided a perfect time to regroup.

The Starbucks maxim was always to be a different kind of company. Many firms use that as catchy copy for the corporate brochure but Starbucks are apparently trying to live it, somewhat successfully being that the brand is currently #45 on Forbes’ ‘Most Innovative’ companies list, way in front of activation behemoths Adobe, Coca-Cola or H&M.

Crucially Starbucks never saw themselves as part of the fast food industry and happily turned away from the increasingly unilateral approach to the design of food retail space. Their store design became not just about designing coffee shops, but evolved into a mission to create a new place, somewhere away from home and work in which people can live out the everyday moments of their lives – business meetings, dates, interviews – a place away where, in the words of Ad De Hond (Vice President of Store Design EMEA) “it’s all about our customers connecting with us.

This is led very much by adherence to the same set of brand values that inspired their first store in Seattle’s historic Pike Place Mark back in 1971. From just a small shop, Starbucks offered some of the world’s finest fresh-roasted whole bean coffees with the aim of inspiring and nurturing the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.

What is of note is that their modern approach is in effect a back-to-basics approach for their brand. Their first store was inspired by its seafaring location and their chosen name, inspired by Moby Dick, evoked the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders. Now the global approach to the design of their stores is to be locally relevant in order to appeal to customers. This of course translates into a commitment to serving the highest quality, ethically sourced coffee but moreover its about being good neighbours – every store is seen as being part of a local community and their engagement with their customer is achieved by bringing together partners, customers, and the community to contribute every day.

With more than 22,000 stores in over 60 countries around the world Starbucks have to work hard not to dilute their brand in all elements of design and marketing. For their customers, it is becoming more and more important to engage with a brand that relates to its locality – whether that is by serving a unique new product or by its store design incorporating elements of its surroundings – but as a global brand the overall façade branding must the same in intent and recognisable from a micro and macro level wherever the site.

Where possible the features of the buildings chosen for each new store are celebrated. Artistic influence is taken from local architecture, design and handicraft. Where possible local artists and manufacturers are used to bring a community feel to the store design. The challenge then is for this global brand to ensure significant elements of their design strategy remain consistent.

In real terms this means assessing the space, the location, the architectural features, the history, the coffee culture, the adjacencies, the consumer who would shop there, and the future employees’ needs, before any pens are put to paper. As De Hond states; “We literally look at the location of the store, the history, the local coffee culture and how we connect our brand DNA with the local stories. We truly listen to what makes sense in order to create a soulful profitable store. Then we start making the designs, we start with schematic lay out sketches and then dive into the storytelling and materialisation which will result in a detailed design package for our construction team to take on and build the store.”

Naturally, when dealing with real places rather than AutoCad generations there are always new challenges along the way but De Hond views these as being very positive; “When you start stripping walls and ceilings you may find details that enhance the overall look and feel of the store and increase the sense of soul. We love these unforeseen surprises!”

This balancing of brand DNA with the realities of physical space is where the true innovation comes in. Effective spatial branding must have elements of design that must remain consistent in order to engage with customers wherever in the globe they might be. But rather than having one or two design studios that sit removed from the situation Starbucks utilise in-market design teams that really understand the spaces they are designing and incorporate a local look and feel, a design strategy that aims to meld the brand’s heart and soul with market relevance and innovation.

And it’s an approach that seems to be working. In brand creation and activation we always strive to find that magic element that can creates meaning for a brand in the minds of the public. The Starbucks brand certainly has this and it’s that magic element that gives the brand its elasticity, which in turn allows them to create stores of every conceivable size and shape.

But do Starbuck see this elasticity as being inherently linked to how their brand looks and feels when walking into a store? In other words, does the brand come alive because of the design of the visual identity which then affects people, or does the brand always exist in the attitude of its staff and customers first of all? Ad de Hond answers that for us; “I think the answer is that it comes from both angles. Starbucks is in the heart of our store partners and many, many customers. We share the same values and passion for coffee and coffee culture. With our store designs we try to create that platform that brings everyone together, so yes, we influence the brand perception, but we also build from the existing brand perception in how we design the stores. It goes both ways.”