Brandology: How Starbucks create a ‘Third Space’

In this exclusive interview we talk to Ad De Hond, Vice-President of Store Design for Starbucks EMEA, about the companies innovative approach to environmental branding, one that eschews the traditional 'umbrella' approach in favour of localisation and idiosyncracy.

As a creative agency you can't escape the fact that your work will most probably have to follow guidelines as preached by the mechanism known as the 'Brand Bible.'  To recap, this is the document that specifies all the elements that go into the visual identity of an organisation; colours, typography, imagery styles and so forth. Some of these are mind-boggling large, others are confusingly slim but all aim to ensure that a brand's design remains consistent whoever is designing it and wherever in the world they might be.

Functional and very necessary as this standard operating procedure is, it is potentially becoming old hat as a number of the largest global brands move away from absolutism to a looser, less prescriptive approach.

Interestingly a lot of this rule breaking has been done by the industry providing the most essential of consumer products; food and drink. Fast food retailers such as McDonald's and KFC are in on the act but even more 'cheffy' types such as Jamie Oliver have also experimented with a number of his restaurant brands.But way out in front are Starbucks.

Bringing it all closer to home, Ego regularly works in branded environments, as such we were very keen to find out how do they manage to create a global identity that feels the same everywhere and yet remains idiosyncratic on an singular outlet level.

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Ego: Could you briefly outline the Starbucks brand values? And how do they translate into a visual identity?

ADH: Our brand values are the same as the day we were founded in Seattle back in 1971, to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time. We do that through our passion for serving the highest quality, ethically sourced coffee, looking after our partners (employees), and engaging with our customers. Most importantly for my design team is our focus on creating what we call the ‘Third Place’, a place away from home or work. We’re also committed to being good neighbours – every store is part of a local community and we like to use our scale for good  – bringing together our partners, customers, and the community to contribute every day. The design of our stores therefore has to be locally relevant and exist as part of the local community.

What is your approach to turning this into an individual design scheme for an outlet?

Where possible, we love to celebrate the features of the buildings where we choose to set up a Starbucks store. We often take artistic influence from local architecture and design, and try to support local artists and manufacturers to bring a community feel to the store design. The challenge for us as a global brand is to ensure significant elements of our design strategy is consistent, but in order to be successful and appeal to our customers, we need to design stores that are locally relevant to the community they serve.

How does this work in practice? Can you give an example?

We literally look at the location of the store, the history of that location, the local coffee culture and how we connect our brand DNA with the local stories. In 2012 we redesigned our store on Vigo Street in London, echoing the local neighbourhood by featuring distinctly British fabrics, referencing Saville Row and celebrating original features of the building by restoring a hand-carved mahogany and mother-of-pearl ceiling, originating from Turkey.

Could you describe your design process?

We start with assessing the space, the location, the architectural features, the history, the coffee culture, the adjacencies, the consumer  who would shop there,  and the store partners’ (employees’) needs, before we put pen to paper. 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 materialization which will result in a detailed design package for our construction team to take on and build the store.

How long does this take?

This depends on so many factors, in general we try to be as fast as we possibly can, ensuring the overall Starbucks experience is up to our standards and hopefully exceeds the consumers’ expectations . We are dealing with approval times and production times of course, but wherever we can be leaner, we do so…

I presume that you must have a brand bible that define what an outlet should look like. How easy is it to balance that with the realities of a physical space?

Of course we have elements of design that must remain consistent in order to engage with our loyal customers across the world, however by having in-market design teams, we can really understand the space we’re designing and incorporate a local look and feel. Our design strategy means we apply our brand’s heart and soul with market relevance and innovation.

Would you say in general that each store has been implemented as planned, or have there been unforeseen changes that have changed and perhaps enriched the envisaged scheme?

We always find new challenges along the way, and in a lot of cases they are very positive. For example 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!

Branding theory would suggest that making each outlet individual would ultimately dilute the brand, how do you counter that criticism?

We are privileged to have a globally recognisable brand, since starting up over 40 years we now have stores in over 60 countries around the world, and we have to work hard not to dilute our brand in all elements of design and marketing. However for our customers, we know 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. Overall our façade branding is the same in intent and recognisable from a micro and macro level.

In your experience what is different about physical space that allows for such diversity, above printed collateral for example?

The stores are where it’s all about our customers connecting with us. Store design is not just about designing coffee shops, but our mission to create a ‘Third Place’ in which people can live out everyday moments of their lives – business meetings, dates, interviews. We know that the coffee industry is becoming increasingly competitive and so we need to ensure we can lead on design innovation and keep our customers coming back to us.

Would you say that there is something in the Starbucks brand that allows for this elasticity? Perhaps that has been there from the outset or has it been established in over time?

I believe we have earned the right to be more daring. After forty years growing the business, we’ve faced challenges with design, and overcome them. We now have the opportunity to lead on design and digital innovations so that our customers are getting the best experience.

Would you say your brand comes from the design of the visual identity which then affects people, or does a brand like Starbucks always exist in the attitude of its staff and customers first of all?

Very good question, 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.