January 7th, 2010
01:52 AM GMT
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It takes years of brilliant business strategy to build a global brand. And love it or hate it, Starbucks is one of the most recognizable coffee products around. So why would the Seattle-based behemoth want to un-brand its powerhouse name, logo and taste?

That's exactly what it's trying, in what some call a brazen attempt at "stealth retail," when a corporate giant tries to sneak a sip of home grown neighborhood familiarity with the consumer never knowing the difference. A Seattle outlet of the Starbucks chain has been rebranded as15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. And there's nothing Café Misto about it. Most certainly, your java and milk in this corner café will be called, quite simply, Café au Lait, as the rest of the un-Starbucked world knows it.

Starbucks sent out its own sleuths to study local coffee shops observing everything from the décor, to the music, to the cups. The company already has opened two of its uniquely named remodeled coffeehouses in Seattle as an experiment that could be extended to more of its 16,000 stores.

Seattle bloggers are frothing at their Frappuccinos over the news. Just a quick sampling below will give you a sense of the local flavor:

"In desperation, Starbuck's is now throwing Hail Mary passes. It's likely going to backfire in a big way."

"Starbucks can do whatever they want to do with their business. If you don't like their stores, go somewhere else, but stop whining!"

"What's wrong with taking fashion tips from the most fashionable girl in school?"

"I hate Starbucks. OMG the most pathetic people go there."

Well, what can you say? In a retail age in which growing numbers of consumers want to know exactly where their carrots come from, what philanthropic causes a CEO supports, and whether child labor was used to pick the cocoa beans in their favorite snack, "stealth retail" could become a lightning rod.

Take the UK's "Innocent" story. A completely non-corporate maker of smoothies and juices recently sold a stake to Coca-Cola, of all companies, for a reportedly sweet-and-substantial 30 million pounds. "Innocent" built its brand as eco-friendly, sporting cute cow-like vans and is just one in a lineup of local success stories to sell to a corporate fat cat. "Innocent" wanted to raise funds to expand in Europe, and of course growing the brand often means giving away the hand. It's business, isn't it?

While different from "stealth retail," the "Innocent's" loss of innocence is another example of how wary consumers need to scratch more than just the surface.

Consumers who are conscious about what they buy can become confused, even outraged when they discover they're not getting quite the thing they thought they were. Or that after years of patronage, a trusted company changes direction, and nobody bothered to let the public know. As a conscious consumer, you might be shocked. You might be appalled. People seem to take this stuff rather personally- as if your long haired peacenik husband came home one night with a buzz cut and a rocket propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder. You might run the other way, but even if you just shrug your shoulders and get on with your evening, chances are, you at the very least- notice!

So what will the consumers' verdict be on this kind of stealth, corporate tactic? Is there anything wrong with taking fashion advice from the most fashionable girl in school? What if her outfit turns out to be a fraud? I honestly don't know, but in today's market, the consumer will most certainly decide.

Join me on World Business Today for an examination of "stealth retail" and other trends.

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