The Real Meaning Of Starbucks' Logo

The Starbucks mermaid logo, appearing on coffee cups all over the known world (and even in the occasional fictional world like Westeros, as witnessed in the notorious "Game of Thrones gaffe"), is meant, according to the company website, to "evok[e] coffee's allure and its seafaring tradition." In fact, the whole nautical motif is kind of a thing, since Starbucks did, in fact, adopt its name from a character in the Great American Whale Novel, "Moby Dick."

On a more basic level, the mermaid embodies the basic advertising principle that pretty girls make people want to buy stuff. Or, perhaps according to the earlier, boobier version of the Starbucks logo, "sex sells." Of course, the company had long ago ditched the topless version for a more family-friendly neck-up mermaid, a logo evolution that was bound to go over better with the sippy cups and strollers crowd as well as in some of the more conservative countries where it expanded as it grew towards global domination.

This is how Starbucks explains its mascot

So what does Starbucks have to say about its logo? Creative director Steve Murray says the mermaid is the face of the brand (quite literally), and although he admits "She is not a real person," (so not based on the founder's wife or anything), he adds that "we kind of think of her as one." Starbucks is also quick to point out that the mascot is not a mermaid since mermaids have just one tail whereas sirens, they say, have two. Well. We stand corrected.

As for why the company chose this mythological maiden, it says not only does the mermaid – er, siren – tie in with the nautical motif of the chain's "Moby Dick"-inspired name, it also tracks with the fact that Starbucks' hometown Seattle lies in fairly close proximity to the Pacific ocean. What's more, the coffee it serves is admittedly not a local product, but instead must undertake a long ocean voyage via container ship in order to arrive at their roasteries. One wonders if Starbucks' founders were aware that the sirens of Greek mythology were notorious for causing shipwrecks ... Superstition aside, the Starbucks siren has proven to be anything but ill-omened for the company, as she's been with it from their startup days all the way to its current incarnation as a multi-zillion dollar enterprise.

The logo is perfectly imperfect

There's one interesting thing about the Starbucks logo that isn't immediately apparent but is very much intentional: The mermaid's face is actually somewhat asymmetrical and has been for over a decade. As to why the brand introduced a deliberate flaw into this once-perfect siren, Fast Company says it's because the pre-2011 version of the logo was actually kind of creepy.

While numerous studies have shown that symmetry is one of the main standards by which we define attractiveness, it seems there can be too much of a good thing. No real human is perfectly symmetrical, at least without the aid of highly-skilled plastic surgeons, and perhaps on some subconscious level, we associate absolute symmetry with artificiality. With this in mind, Starbucks' design team retooled the mermaid just a teensy bit by adding a shadow alongside her nose that breaks up some of that facial symmetry. This hint of lopsidedness made the siren more human-looking and thus, paradoxically, all the prettier for her imperfection.

The not-so-controversial controversy behind the logo

Surprisingly, even the G-rated face-only Starbucks siren has been controversial in certain circles, those being that of a) conspiracy theorists and b) the overly pedantic. The former group has seen her as a symbol of the Illuminati (honestly, what isn't seen as an Illuminati symbol?) or of a Zionist plot. It's the latter circle, though, that really likes to pick those nits and dig up the, well, not dirt, since there's nothing particularly shameful attached to the findings. Instead, these people are merely stirring the dust with scholarly criticisms.

While Starbucks says its original logo was "derived from a twin-tailed siren in an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut," it seems to have misspoken. The term "Norse" actually refers to Viking-era Scandinavia, so a more proper term would have been "Nordic." More shockingly, it turns out that the original woodcut may have been German, while Atlas Obscura located similar images in a Byzantine mosaic and a 12th-century Italian cathedral. The closest thing to a scandal, however, may be the identity of the twin-tailed siren: She could be a character called Melusine, who's actually more of an inland spring-maid than a sea siren. But then, Seattle is located between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, so perhaps a siren who's also a freshwater nymph is the perfect symbol for that city's gift to the world's coffee drinkers. At any rate, the siren's cute, and the logo's not going anywhere. So just calm down and chill out with a flat white already.