Behind The Design: Interview with Mike Peck and Steve Murray on Starbucks New Retail Coffee Packaging

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"Each coffee is, in itself, a work of art, and each bag had to reflect the artistry that goes into the contents of each bag. There is a lot of pride in what we do, in our coffee . . ., from the farmers, our baristas, our store managers, our coffee team, our designers, leadership."

Mike Peck, Creative Director of Packaging 

Earlier this week, at The Dieline Package Design Conference in San Francisco Mike Peck, Starbucks Creative Director of Packaging, unveiled the bold designs and development for Starbucks new retail coffee packaging in his Keynote session “Packaging a Retail Experience.”

We had the opportunity to chat with Starbucks partners Mike Peck and Steve Murray about the new packaging, which is a big change from the previous design and beginning to land on Starbucks retail store shelves this month.

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Andrew Gibbs: So, Tell me about the new coffee bag packaging.

Mike: The premise started with the realization that a customer’s shopping experience in a Starbucks store is vastly different from what they’ll experience shopping in the supermarket. To many customers, roast and flavor mean the same thing. A coffee’s flavor is much more complex than just its roast. We have very rich stories around our coffees that we wanted to share. Although the coffee packaging redesign that happened a couple of years ago was very successful in helping to recreate that shopping experience and quickly identifying a coffee by roast, we felt that the coffee itself--what’s in the bag--was more important, as least as far as the presentation in our retail stores.

AG: So, why now? Why the redesign only two years after the major rebrand?

Mike: Honestly, we felt like we were losing a bit of the allure . . . a little bit of the romance of our coffee. Starbucks® coffee is so complex. Like you experienced in our tasting room (refers to Andrew’s recent visit to Starbuck’s headquarters last spring ), you can’t easily sum up the spicy nuances of Sumatra, in one word: dark (as in dark roast). It simply doesn’t do it justice.

Steve: In one of our early briefings, our senior leadership team said, “Talk about the coffee. Tell the story of these coffees that we’ve had since we opened our doors.” It gives us a chance to push those blends apart – give people a reason to understand the difference.

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AG: That makes perfect sense – you see it reflected in the packaging too. It’s pretty incredible. Tell me a little bit about the contrast between the old and the new. Were you concerned about how consumers would receive the drastic change?

Mike: Well, we stuck to the color palettes of blonde, medium and dark. We kept in mind how customers were shopping. There are many things that worked in the last redesign that we retained in the new packaging but, truthfully, we think our customers will be pleased with how the new packaging pops on the shelf and celebrates the coffees that they love. You’ll notice that the blonde is more of a gold tone, the medium is a rich, coppery brown and the dark is, well, dark, with deep purple and black. On the back, we kept the foils in the original colors - yellow, orange and purple. 

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AG: I find it interesting that you don’t simply use shades of browns to indicate blonde, medium and dark, but yellow, orange and purple. Can you talk about that a bit?

Mike: The yellow, orange and purple are ways in which we identified roast in the earlier packaging, so we decided to incorporate it here to show some consistency in how we were referencing roast. And to be honest, we looked at shades of brown and it wasn’t as exciting as we wanted it to be. Our stores have a lot of browns in them, we didn’t want the coffees to disappear on shelf.

AG: What was the process of redesigning the packaging this time around like?

Mike: One of the great things about this was the coffee tastings. We did two different coffees per day.

Steve: For nine days. And with members of the coffee team, many of whom have been at the company for decades.

Mike: We didn’t talk about where the coffee hit on your tongue, or how the processing method impacted the taste (things we discuss during a typical coffee tasting at Starbucks). ; We just talked about the history of the coffee and what it represents to partners (employees) who have been with the company for years. It was heaven for writers like Steve. We were able to talk to partners who have been with Starbucks for decades.

Steve: Some of the stories were passed along from roaster to roaster, coffee taster to coffee taster. Many of them have worked in the roasting plants. One partner, Leslie Wolford, was the first person to roast Komodo Dragon Blend, for instance. So, talking to her about the coffee and her first time roasting it was amazing. We recorded those sessions and pulled those stories forward, tribal knowledge and company history that we hadn’t heard in a while. The more people heard about our coffee tasting sessions, the more people wanted to join or be a part of them.

Mike: One day we were talking about House Blend, and we got into an interesting discussion. What kind of house is it? Is it Craftsman? A country rambler? Is it modern? We ultimately decided that it’s not a house, it’s our house. It’s the Pike Place store- the house we really care about (Starbucks first store in the Pike Place Market). During an early critique, Howard [Schultz, Starbucks ceo] pulled up a picture on his phone of the scoop they use to measure beans and blends from Pike Place and have been since the early days. He said, “Look at THIS, this is cool stuff.” So, the scoop, with the beans became the icon for House Blend. We have perfected it, and we refer to it, internally, as our “doorbell blend” - sort of a gateway for all the other blends. House is the blend that welcomes you in.

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AG: As far as the packaging goes, it looks like you are moving away from the minimalistic clean and white look. What was the inspiration behind the new style?

Mike: Each coffee is, in itself, a work of art, and each bag had to reflect the artistry that goes into the contents of each bag. There is a lot of pride in what we do, in our coffee . . ., from the farmers, our baristas, our store managers, our coffee team, our designers, leadership. We talk about the first ten feet -- where the coffee is grown, and we talk about the last ten feet -- when the customer receives their cup of coffee from the barista. Each of these coffee package designs needed to reflect that artistry of, that pride, in the bean.

AG: That is so incredible. What was the evolution of the design like, the process? How did it evolve from the original concept to what we see in stores? What was the time frame behind the design?

Mike: One unique aspect of the project was that we took a pause about two-thirds of the way through the design process. We were at a point where we were really proud of our progress, but it was lacking some of the artistry that we wanted. We had a lot of heritage but wanted to incorporate more of the modern influence. So, we rethought everything over a weekend and came back with a new exploratory approach. We basically stopped everything and re-explored silver bags, gold bags, layered bags, and we finally got to the right place. We are a big company and a lot of people want to have their say, but our leadership gave us the freedom to do what was right. A lot of trust was put in us. We had to deliver on it.

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AG: Tell me about the substrate of the new packaging. I see that is it really different from the high gloss finish of the current ones. It has more of a matte finish. Tell me about the thoughts went into that?

Mike: Each bag has a matte finish with gloss on some of the icons and the logo. There’s this great layering you can get when you print on roll stock. You actually print on plastic – both sides of the plastic, which is then adhered to the foil film. So, when you print white on the backside, you under print the white behind the color; when you turn the bag, you get different images to come through. You’re going to start to see some little messages we’ve designed into the bag. For example, Verona was originally called “Jake’s Blend,” because it was a blend we originally created in 1975 for Jake O’Shaughnessy’s, a restaurant here in Seattle.

Steve: So many people loved it that they came to our store asking for that coffee. We had to say “We can’t give you that, but we can give you something close to it.” And so 80/20 Blend was created, a blend that is 80% Starbucks Yukon Blend and 20% Starbucks Italian Roast. We ended up calling it Verona after the city of love and the Italian Roast in the blend. On the bag of Verona, we’ve hidden pieces of that history. On our new Blonde Roast coffee, Veranda, you’ll see the number “80,” which denotes the 80 roast and recipe iterations it took to get the exact taste we were looking for in our new light roast coffee. Our baristas will have all of these secrets and stories and will be able to share them with customers who are shopping for coffee in our stores.

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AG: How extensive is this redesign? Are we going to see this in grocery or expanding into Starbucks® VIA or Verismo pods?

Mike: This new packaging is for packaged coffee in Starbucks retail stores only at this time.

AG: Each one of the designs is so unique, but there is also so much consistency in the color and the placement of the logo. I think it’s really fascinating. I think you guys did an incredible job.

Mike: It was a blast. Being able to talk to the experts at Starbucks over coffee was one of the great joys of this project and one of the great joys of being in-house. We filled two huge walls with sketches and concepts and feel really good about where we ended up. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have a team filled with the best designers and writers I’ve ever worked with.

A note after the fact: this Kind of work doesn’t happen with a small team, it takes a village. And that village includes, but is not limited to: Derek Shimizu, Marisa Mickelson, Kelsey Record, Tina Hsu, Laurel Geddes, Sara Deaurujo, Victor Melendez, Allison Myers, Anasazi Wade, Trista Sydloski-Tesch, Jen Sinconis, Chere Garcia, Anne Stevens, Kathy Hughes, Melody Grieves, Cara Schwartz, Donald McKinlay, Steve Murray, Ethan Johnson, Stephanie Vandenack, Geri Gale, Michael Mendonsa, Carole Hurst, Shannon Donahue, Kim Spalding, Mike Peck, Jen Polaski, Jeffrey Fields and Terry Davenport.