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Originally published May 11, 2010 at 5:17 PM | Page modified May 13, 2010 at 11:08 AM

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Seattle's Best Coffee getting new logo, expanding

In a push to squeeze higher sales from areas that once took a back seat to its breakneck U.S. store growth, Starbucks started juicing Seattle's Best. By the fall, the coffee will be sold in 30,000 locations, more than half of them Subway and Burger King stores and AMC Theaters. The chain is also pursuing franchisees.

Seattle Times business reporter

After years as Starbucks' little-mentioned shadow brand, Seattle's Best Coffee is stepping into the light with redesigned cups and signage, and a Facebook page to underscore its rapidly expanding presence in fast-food restaurants.

One of Seattle's oldest coffee brands, Seattle's Best — known for a smoother, lighter roast than Starbucks — has seen change before.

When Jim and Dave Stewart started the shop on Whidbey Island in 1969, it was called the Wet Whisker and sold only ice cream. They quickly added coffee and moved to the Seattle waterfront, where it became Stewart Brothers Coffee.

After a couple of name and ownership changes, Starbucks bought the aspirationally named Seattle's Best Coffee chain of 129 stores in 2003 and mostly ignored it.

It was so independent of Starbucks that Seattle's Best employees bragged about not sharing their recipes with Starbucks workers, especially for popular drinks like Red Cane Kola, a cold drink of sugar and cola nuts with creamy froth on top.

Early last year, Seattle's Best had 550 stores, about 480 of them in Borders bookstores.

Then the changes began.

To squeeze higher sales from areas that once took a back seat to its breakneck U.S. store growth, Starbucks started juicing Seattle's Best.

By the fall, the coffee will be sold in 30,000 locations, more than half of them Subway and Burger King stores and AMC Theatres. The chain is also pursuing franchisees.

The Seattle's Best face-lift features a clean new logo that looks like an open-mouthed smiley face with a drip of coffee. It will appear on cups and napkins by this fall, on coffee packages in grocery stores and elsewhere by next spring and on store signs over the next year.

"We're going back into the heritage of the company with its sense of fun and optimism, then bringing an element of simplicity," said Michelle Gass, a rising star at Starbucks put in charge of Seattle's Best last fall.

The logo came from Creature, a 60-person Seattle design firm that has worked with Pacifico beer and with Bill Gates on his new "Gates Notes" blog.

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One of the original designers of the iPod, a guy from California, once called Creature's aesthetic "Seattle's kind of design work," which at first offended Creature principal Robson Grieve.

"As he talked through it, it felt true to us," Grieve said. "Seattle work is more hand-forged and human, in this context (the logo) with a typeface that's entirely hand built."

Gass made Creature an integral part of the re-branding campaign, beginning in December. Rather than give them a specific assignment, she asked them to sit at the table with Seattle's Best marketers and strategists.

Besides the logo, they came up with other ways for customers to experience Seattle's Best, including plans for tasting events and a Facebook page that will go live Wednesday.

They are behind Starbucks, one of the hottest corporate brands on Facebook with more than 7 million "people who like this."

Gass says the coffee giant is not worried about its in-house sibling overtaking its brand.

"This is going to be really positive overall for the Starbucks Corporation," she said.

"Seattle's Best is going all kinds of new and interesting places and can happily coexist within the Starbucks family."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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