Behind the Starbucks Siren

The coffee giant pulled the curtain back on its brand identity, signaling just how critical transparency is becoming for consumers all over.

Helvetica or Arial? Black background or green? Often, consumers are not privy to the conversations behind every branding decision a company makes. But Starbucks decided to change that standard by pulling back the curtain on its brand identity.

Recently, the coffee giant published a public microsite that unveiled its updated branding—and with it, the reasonings behind its creative choices. Through the site, Starbucks customers can learn more about the theory behind Starbucks’ new brand expression, why it’s chosen certain core elements like its iconic green color, and browse through its photography.

According to news outlets, Starbucks’ creative team said it was inspired to share its brand guidelines by other companies that’ve been more open about their creative process. And this, experts say, is a symbol for how transparency has become a major differentiator for leaders looking to drive growth. “Customers want the brand they interact with to be like the people they interact with,” says Caren Fleit, managing director and leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Marketing Officers Practice. “Good values with a sense of purpose and nothing to hide.”

Indeed, one recent study found that 74% of global consumers surveyed want greater transparency on product sourcing, workplace conditions, and social impact. Although branding may not be among those options, sharing brand guidelines with the public can be another way for leaders to build trust with their customers, experts say. “Being transparent about everything is the right message to consumers,” says Kathy Vrabeck, a Korn Ferry senior client partner.

But Starbucks’ decision to publish its brand guidelines is not only a matter of offering transparency. It also goes to show, experts say, how branding itself has evolved over the decades.

In the past, an organization’s brand identity may have been defined just by its logo, colors, or fonts. But today, with more consumers focused on purpose, branding has become more than about how a company “looks,” says Zach Peikon, principal with Korn Ferry’s Marketing Officers Practice. “It’s about what you really stand for,” he says. “The brand of the company is the heart of the organization.”

To be sure, an organization’s visual character is still an important piece of branding, experts say. In many ways, it reflects a company’s customer base (in Starbucks’ case, a simple, streamlined typeface to represent a more global perspective). But as competition becomes stiffer, leaders need to also include transparency, authenticity, and customer connection in the company’s brand expression. “You need to show up as who you are in the market,” says Fleit. “A brand can’t put on an act anymore.”