A Case Study

Coffee is coffee, right? Not to be a snob, but if you say “coffee is coffee,” you are clearly not a true coffee drinker.

If you think about it, no one’s choice in coffee is completely objective.

You might choose your coffee based on what is cheapest. With enough sugar and cream, I guess you can make any brown water taste good. Others of us might choose what is organic and/or fair trade. Your purchasing decision might be more about sustainable farming practices than it is cost. And for others, brand loyalty might be most important. You might buy the same kind of coffee every time, simply because that’s the kind of coffee you buy.

When it comes to choosing where you get your coffee, there are lots of different considerations as well.

You might choose your coffee shop based on convenience, what they offer besides coffee, sustainable practices, or overall atmosphere.

In February 2010, Twin Cities-based Caribou Coffee underwent a rebranding process in hopes recreating their store atmosphere and igniting more interest in the coffee chain nationwide. While the cabin theme has remained nostalgic to those of us living in Minnesota, apparently the north woods have little appeal or resonance with people in D.C., Chicago, and New York City. Hoping to engender the same level of appeal nationwide as coffee giant Starbucks, Caribou scrapped their rustic fonts, realistic deer logo, and log decorations for cleaner, flatter alternatives. With a more modern overall look to their branding and to their stores, the goal was to oust the prevailing “schizophrenic brand image” in order to foster a more contemporary, less regional image.


But take a look at this picture taken outside the flagship Caribou shop in Edina, Minnesota, and some questions might arise even for those of us who are familiar with the Caribou brand.


What is the correct logo?  

What is the right font?

What is Caribou Coffee?

Eight years later, the rebranding process has clearly not been as effective as Caribou would have hoped. As evidenced by the last picture, even in its wheelhouse of the Twin Cities, many of the stores continue to send mixed messages through their use of old and new branding. Nationwide, expansion has not gone well, either.  A year after rebranding, Caribou was sold to the German company that had also recently purchased coffee retailer Peet’s Coffee & Tea. Then just months later, Caribou announced that they would be shutting down a quarter of its stores — closing 80 underperforming stores and rebranding another 88 as Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

The reasoning for these moves, they suggest, is to direct its focus where it really was all along: on its home in Minnesota and other core markets.

Surely the rebranding fiasco is not the only reason for Caribou’s recent failures, but it certainly has contributed.  At a time when they most needed to inform consumers who they really were, their communication was muddled with confusion and inconsistency.