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Gerard Paul
September 22, 2020

4 Famous Ways Starbucks Drove Brand Association

A hand holding a cup of coffee and a notebook on side.Starbucks is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. With locations in over 75 countries, the Starbucks brand – and its siren emblem – have become international icons.

However, the company didn't start with this level of brand recognition. From humble Seattle beginnings, it grew into an enormous influence on culture and changed how we think about brands and their impact at large.

Interestingly, Starbucks has done an excellent job of adopting generic names and impressing their association on the public consciousness and coining its own new "generic-sounding" names.

I'll show you what I mean – here are four excellent ways Starbucks has nailed their brand association.

1. Choice of Size Names: Tall, Venti, Grande

One of the clearest examples of Starbucks' mastery of brand association is reflected in the simple names of their drink sizes.

While most American coffee shops called their sizes the traditional small, medium, and large, the Tall, Venti, and Grande are tied inextricably with Starbucks' brand.

The names' origin comes from the company's founder, Howard Schultz, who originally wanted three sizes at his Seattle-based chain: short, tall, and Grande. These Italianesque names evoked a sense of place for many, and reflected Schultz's vision of romantic Italian coffee bars and espresso culture (in the heart of Seattle!).

Later, when the company adopted larger sizes to reflect American tastes, venti became the largest option, and short was dropped from the menu.

Ironically, "Tall" became the smallest option – and would later be mocked by Paul Rudd in the movie Role Models, cementing that the atypical naming scheme had impacted pop culture in a big way. Of course, the company has stuck with its idea and kept the Italian names, even adding a larger "Trenta" size for select items. 

While some continue to mock them, the names remained even as the company expanded to Arab, Spanish, and Chinese markets – and beyond. This creates consistency for international Starbucks fans; no matter what language you speak, you can still order a Grande.

2. Flat White

The flat white is an excellent example of Starbucks' ability to create a strong brand association from a generic, pre-existing term. A flat white is essentially an alternative take on a latte – a flat white has a higher ratio of coffee to steamed milk and involves micro-foam instead of foamed milk.

The drink has been popular for years in Australia (where it is rumored to have originated). However, until a few years ago, no one in America knew what a flat white was.

After making the rounds in Australia in 2009, the drink headed to Europe in 2010, quickly gaining popularity. The drink crossed the Atlantic with Starbucks in 2015 and made a big splash on the North American coffee scene.

For many Canadians and Americans, the simple words "flat white" are directly linked to Starbucks because of the large national rollout the drink received and the associated Starbucks marketing campaign. The less foamy option gained popularity due to its unique name – and status as a highly-caffeinated option. 

All in all, the large national rollout and ad campaign that followed are credited with the drink's success. Starbucks proved its strategy of adopting a trendy drink with their own variation – and making it a core part of its stable.

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3. Frappuccino

Starbucks crafts a clear brand image and association in consumers' minds by creating unique offerings that stand out both to the traditional coffee drinker and casual consumers of caffeine. That's why the Frappuccino is one of the most successful drinks on the menu to date.

A Frappuccino is a blended drink that originated at a Boston based coffee shop called Coffee Connection – a play on the milk and ice cream frappe (yes - with no accent) popular in New England. This time, Starbucks' strategy was buying the Coffee Connection, adopting the Frapuccino with only slight changes to the recipe.

Nowadays, Frappuccino are a staple on the menu, with flavors like Mocha Chip, Strawberries and Cream, and Caramel available daily. The drink is considered by many to be a dessert – or merely an extra-sweet coffee option.

But if those daily variations weren't popular enough, Starbucks celebrates holidays with unique Frappuccino's that reflect the season. Limited-time offerings have included a vampire-themed Frappuccino for Halloween and a sakura flavored Frappuccino in Starbucks Japan for the cherry blossoms' yearly bloom. 

These Instagram-worthy drinks (combined with their time-limited status!) have been incredibly popular in their home markets. And while you may not be able to invent the next Frappuccino, combining an everyday option with time-limited seasonal variants is a proven formula.

4. Pumpkin Spice Latte

Continuing on the topic of seasonality, the pumpkin spice latte is one of the greatest adopted brand associations... perhaps in history. While the pumpkin spice blend's history goes back hundreds of years, Starbucks has managed to convince consumers that pumpkin spice means "latte at Starbucks."

And Starbucks proves that even negative associations can work – some corners have mocked the drink as part of "basic" culture. Nonetheless, it's one of the most popular drinks Starbucks serves, and even inspires its fans to lean-into the culture and feature their drinks more prominently as part of their outfits. Starbucks knew all this and still continued to market the drink as its signature fall drink, encouraging its target audience to post selfies with their beverages. (And it even has a Twitter feed).

Nowadays, tons of companies have copied the seasonal fall drink, including Starbucks' direct national competitors and mom and pop shops all around the world.

Oh, and despite that "basic" reputation – the PSL prints money. A Starbucks' brand representative confirmed the drink had sold more than 350 million units(!) since its launch by 2018.

Maybe being mocked a little isn't so bad?

A cup of Frappuccino coffee.

What Can We Learn From Starbucks?

Starbucks has been unquestionably successful at building strong brand associations. Whether adopting existing ideas and concepts, bringing foreign concepts to new markets, introducing slightly exotic names, or simply buying good ideas, Starbucks has deftly maneuvered in the competitive coffee market.

And much of their success is reproducible – their relentless pursuit of good ideas in overseas markets, and their deft command of social media give some clues on how you can set yourself apart from the competition. And Starbucks has really nailed seasonality – sometimes a time-limit is what you need for the next level.

If you seek to create strong branding, thinking about a consistent brand that harnesses unique language and adapts to the seasons is an excellent way to stand out. 

Share your thoughts on how you might adopt some of Starbucks' marketing strategies below!

Gerard Paul writes about food & drink (and coffee) at his site ManyEats. On the brand side, he's trying to associate a compound word with his fun food writing (to various degrees of success!).

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