The name Starbucks for a coffee shop is not exactly one you’d pull out of thin air. Maybe whoever started it was a big fan of Battlestar Galactica? No, more likely, whoever created the Starbuck character for Battlestar was a fan of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This was exactly where Starbucks Coffee got its name, as well.
Starbuck was the name of the first mate of the whale-ship Pequod, the ship in Moby Dick. The background of the Starbucks Coffee founders would seem enough to suggest a connection to this literary classic. The company was started by three Seattle men, Gordon Bowker, Jerry Baldwin, and Zev Siegl. Bowker was a writer, Baldwin was an English teacher, and Siegl was a history teacher. They opened the first store in 1971 and called it Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spices.
This early store was a retail location that sold premium coffee beans, coffee equipment, and a drip coffee maker made by the Swedish company Hammarplast. They got their beans from Peet’s, a coffee retail store founded in Berkley, California, in 1966 by Alfred Peet. This first Starbucks store was simply an imitation of Peet’s, with which the trio had been impressed. They bought Peet’s in 1984 and then decided to focus on Peet’s brand, selling Starbucks to Howard Schultz.
Schultz had been Starbucks’s director of marketing in 1982. He thought that Starbucks should sell not only coffee beans but also espresso. The owners weren’t interested, so Schultz left in 1985 to start his coffee bar chain. Once he acquired Starbucks in 1987, he converted it into a coffee bar and began rapidly expanding, turning the company into the huge force it is today.
Bowker, the writer, came up with the name Starbucks. Looking at an old mining map of the Cascades and Mount Rainer area, Bowker saw a town called Starbo. It reminded him of the first mate in Moby Dick. He liked how the name sounded, even though it had nothing to do with coffee. The three founders approved the name and added an “s” to make it sound better.
In their early advertising material, Starbucks referred to “the coffee-loving first mate named Starbuck. The Herman Melville Society took umbrage to this and contacted the company, telling them that Starbuck does not drink coffee anywhere in Moby Dick. Before you read through Moby Dick again, trying to catch Starbuck enjoying a cuppa joe, it’s true: He never drinks coffee in the book.
Starbucks Was Almost Called Cargo House
Starbucks branding is truly iconic. Even without seeing a logo, you can probably spot its drinks just by the color of the straw. But as often as you’ve passed (and, let’s be honest, stopped at) the coffee chain, you probably haven’t given its name a second thought. Just make sure you’re not committing any of these barista pet peeves.
Just looking at a Starbucks cup doesn’t give much of a hint about what its name means. The woman in its logo is a mythological siren, so what does that have to do with stars? Or bucks? And why is it one word?
Originally, the chain was going to be called “Cargo House, which would have been a terrible, terrible mistake,” co-founder Gordon Bowker tells the Seattle Times. The owners had also considered using “Pequod” after Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick.
But Terry Heckler, the brand consultant who designed the chain’s logo, wasn’t so crazy about that name either. Heckler mentioned offhand that, like these power words, things starting with “st” sounded powerful—a good trait for a brand that would grow to more than 25,000 locations by 2016. From there, Bowker made a list of “st” words. But Starbucks wasn’t on it. Another Starbucks marketing choice: take a look at the real reason why Starbucks coffee sizes aren’t small, medium, and large.
As the team tried landing on a name, Heckler brought out an old 1800s map of Mt. Rainier and the Cascades. The name of one mining town, Starbos, stood out to Bowker. He immediately thought of the first mate on the Pequod: Starbuck.
They added the S because it sounded more conversational. After all, anyone talking about the coffee shop would probably say they were “going to Starbucks,” so they might as well make it official.
The company says its name “evoked the romance of the high seas and the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders,” but Bowker brushes that off. He says Moby Dick has nothing to do with their coffee, and “it was only coincidental that the sound seemed to make sense.” But hey, we didn’t need a nautical adventure anyway. We’re perfectly content with a simple latte.
This weekend was one of those times where my many years of experience building start-ups help give me perspective. Branding is hard & takes time.