When Starbucks opened its doors in 1971, fresh-roasted coffee and loose-leaf tea was scooped by hand into wax paper bags, with the black ink letters of a rubber stamp declaring its contents – like Sumatra, House Blend and Italian Roast.
But by the time Starbucks transformed from a whole-bean coffee retailer to an Italian-style coffeehouse in 1987, the packaging became a vessel for storytelling. First came coffee stamps, illustrated stickers that were themselves little pieces of art. Designs could be playful, romantic or bold, much like the coffee itself. Then in 1995 came Blue Note Blend, the first coffee to be sold in packaging printed with colorful graphics.
These new “rollstock” packages offered an even larger canvas for sharing each coffee’s unique story through images and words. The packaging often incorporated stamp designs that echoed the old-school stickers until 2011 with the update to the Starbucks logo and brand identity and launch of Starbucks® Blonde Roasted coffees.
Designing a new core coffee bag can be a daunting task. Unlike seasonal coffees such as Starbucks® Christmas Blend (or even holiday cups!) core coffee packaging does not change every year. In fact, the design is intended to last at least 10 years. So, how does the bag tell the story of the beans inside?
It always begins with the coffee.
Sergio Alvarez, coffee/tea development lead on Starbucks Coffee team, partnered with the Starbucks Creative Studio to share the stories behind the beans – starting with tasting notes and descriptive words to highlight the flavors of each unique coffee blend.
“We have a very unique and thoughtful way that we develop coffee blends at Starbucks and we wanted to make sure that came through in how we describe them,” Alvarez said. “Depending on the blend, depending on the roast and depending on the region, there are different flavors that we associate with each of these special coffees.”
Although the coffee flavor profiles are the same delicious coffees customers know and love, the new packaging uses more descriptive and culinary terms to describe the flavor notes – like Veranda Blend®, which was updated from “mellow and soft” to “toasted malt and milk chocolate” and Italian Roast, which went from “roasty and sweet” to “dark cocoa and toasted marshmallow.”
Alvarez and the Coffee team also shared the history of many of Starbucks most beloved blends to inspire the designers. Organic Yukon Blend®, for example, was created in 1971 after a customer requested a coffee that would help keep his fishermen going during the fishing season in the Bering Sea. In the new packaging, Yukon Blend evokes that same independent spirit of Alaska with a mountainous scene set in the Yukon Valley.
Storytelling through art
“Our coffee reminds us of people, or moments, or experiences, and we were able to explore that in the way we approach our coffee packaging,” Alvarez said.
Translating those stories into art was a fun challenge for the Creative Studio’s designers and illustrators, as they sought to weave together past, present and future while tapping into Starbucks new creative brand expression.
“Our legacy has used hand-done illustration to bring warmth and brand connection. We wanted to continue to tie a thread to our new packaging,” said Derek Shimizu, associate creative director for the Creative Studio. “We also wanted to make sure we were staying modern while looking forward into our brand.”
The strategic selection of colors is one of the most important elements of the design. With every creative brand expression since the packaging refresh of 2011, and again with the most current update from 2013, designers have used palettes of gold, copper and purple to signify roast intensity. The new designs continue using those visual cues to identify Blonde (gold), Medium (copper) and Dark (purple) roasts.
Now, what to draw? Illustrators would often start with iconography and motifs that recall past designs. An Italian scooter found its way again on to the front of Italian Roast, as did the roses that adorn Caffè Verona®. And it wouldn’t be Komodo Dragon Blend® without its eponymous lizard. They also worked to incorporate coffee cherries and botanicals into the designs to highlight the origins of coffee.
Deconstructing the new bags
Designers also consider what they call the “architecture” of each bag to make it easy to shop for their coffees, whether they are in Starbucks stores or the grocery aisle. They created a badge system that is consistent across the roast spectrum with design details that clearly identify roast and tasting notes. They highlighted Starbucks commitment to responsibly grown coffee by bringing the ethical sourcing stamp to the front, underscoring the company’s commitment to positively impacting the lives and livelihoods of coffee farmers and their communities. There's also a traceability code on the back of the bags sold in Starbucks stores that can connect customers in the U.S. and Canada to where the coffee is grown using the Starbucks Digital Traceability tool.
“Our current packaging was artful and expressive, but every bag had a different typography, different icon placement, which made it a little bit hard to navigate or find where you were within the roast,” said Shimizu. “We wanted make all of those elements straightforward and easy for the customer to navigate with this refresh.”
Learn more about the five new coffee bag designs, and read on for a deeper dive into three of them.
Veranda Blend is a smooth and mellow Starbucks® Blonde Roasted Latin American coffee, and its packaging makes you feel like you are sipping coffee in a lush garden. The bag is grounded in golden hues, with delicate hummingbirds flitting in and out of the scene, a nod to the coffee’s lighter roast. Accents of a Starbucks dark “house green” and periwinkle on the coffee cherries and foliage further highlight this coffee’s story. “With the illustration, I wanted to transport our customer to a lively veranda in Latin America and then to give a sense of place,” said designer and illustrator Yumi Reid. “I wanted people to feel like sipping amazing coffee the coffee farmers created there – really feel like being there in Latin America where this amazing coffee comes from.”
Pike Place® Roast
Named after Starbucks first store, in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, Starbucks® Pike Place® Roast is served fresh every day in Starbucks stores around the world. A smooth, well-rounded Medium Roasted blend of Latin American beans with subtly rich flavors of cocoa and praline, makes it the perfect brewed coffee.
Bridget Shilling, Pike Place Roast’s illustrator and designer, felt a special connection to the Pike Place store – her husband worked at the market for several years.
“Being assigned to work on Pike Place was a special moment for me. I just think there's something magical about going to the Pike Place store and celebrating our history as a brand,” Shilling said.
She was inspired to showcase the heritage of the store with a design inspired by old-fashioned luggage stickers on a rich, copper background, and included the original brown logo, a coffee stamp, and Pike Place’s iconic Public Market Center sign. But her favorite is her homage to Rachel the Piggy Bank, the life-size bronze sculpture that has served as the market’s mascot since 1986. (There’s also a replica covered in coffee beans that stands sentinel above the front door of the 1912 Pike Starbucks store.)
Sumatra coffee has been on the Starbucks menu since 1971, and the Sumatran tiger which lives on the Indonesian island, has been its symbol ever since its first coffee stamp. To convey its bold and full-bodied flavor, designer and illustrator Abby McCartin used deep-purple colors to emphasize the dark roast of Starbucks® Sumatra with pops of greens and blues along with foil on the tiger stripes and plants.
“I created an interesting effect by adjusting the scale of the tiger in relation to the palm trees and jungle landscape, noting the similarities between shapes of the tiger and palm leaves. Layering them adds an element of fun and mystery; you definitely see the tiger stripes at first glance, but once you look closer you find more,” McCartin said.
Leslie Wolford, who first joined the company as a barista 30 years ago when coffee was still scooped into paper bags, is proud of the new whole-bean packaging and looking forward to seeing it on shelves.
“Everybody brought their ideas and their own expression and elements to the table to bring our coffees to life in a different way,” said Wolford, who is now a coffee/tea development lead for the Coffee team. “I think it's just that evolution of people, partnerships and growth in the company and how we tell our story, and thread that back to who we are as a company and how we're moving forward into the next iteration of what Starbucks is as a brand.”
New packaging designs are available on our Virtual Backgrounds page.