Starbucks first entered the Middle East with the opening of Kuwait and Lebanon in 1999, in partnership with the MH Alshaya group from Kuwait. Together, we opened Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in early 2000. The Alshaya teams were amazing partners and very passionate about the brand and executing The Starbucks Experience in every country we entered. They went so far as to start every shift, in every store, with a team coffee tasting!
The next Middle East market on the docket was Saudi Arabia. We knew the market would pose some unique challenges for us, due to cultural differences and strict religious laws, but we were committed to striking a balance between protecting the Starbucks brand and respecting the local culture. For example, our store designs needed to accommodate separate seating areas for families and other special service requirements, which the team did a great job of addressing.
The greatest challenge we faced was with our logo, due to the human form of the mermaid, which we were told would never be acceptable in Saudi culture. The request was made to adapt our logo for the Saudi Arabia market only, which was not well received. The decision went to the top and we got HS’s blessing to proceed. Members of the Alshaya and Starbucks marketing teams worked together to design an adapted logo, with looked like the crown of the mermaid rising over the waves. The team believed the “new” logo was still clearly identifiable as Starbucks, while also being culturally acceptable in Saudi Arabia and the legal team on both sides of the partnership approved the new logo. Given the long lead time for production and shipping we went to press with the new logo - producing ceramic mugs, paper and plastic cups for to-go orders, bags, etc. - well in advance of our market entry.
As we neared the selection of the first site, Moje Akhbari (Market Development Consultant) and I (International Operations) visited Riyadh. I was the first Starbucks Executive to visit the market – and I was a woman! As a woman, I was required to wear all black, floor length skirts, with long sleeves and a black “hijab” to cover my hair, neck and chest. (As a western woman, I was not expected to cover my face completely.) We were invited to the offices of the local market partner to start our site tour, but there was concern about my being seen in the office by two elderly, traditional men who worked there. I offered to wait in the car, while Moje and the others went into the office to gather the participants for our tour.
A few minutes later, Moje came to the car and told me that Muhammad, the market leader, wanted me to come in. The two elderly gentlemen happened to be out of the office that day and he wanted to spend some time getting to know each other before we set out on our tour. I was very nervous, to say the least, and kept telling myself “keep your eyes to yourself and don’t speak unless spoken to”. Muhammad was incredibly friendly and gracious and made me feel comfortable in minutes. He went on to tell me about his time as a student at Central Washington University and how much he loved the Northwest – and Starbucks! The world felt much smaller in that moment.
When it came time to go on the site tour, I was not able to ride in the car with Muhammad due to cultural rules, but he pointed his car out to us in the parking garage as we walked by. He specifically wanted us to see the Starbucks logo on the bumper of his car. Not the new logo we had created for the Saudi Arabia market entry, but the mermaid logo we used in every other market! He said he didn’t care what people thought. He loved the logo and was proud to display it.
And so the saga began….. Orders had been placed for all products for the Saudi Arabia market to bear the new logo and yet the market leader wanted to be bold and try to enter with our standard logo. The debate was opened up again. At the end of the day, the decision was made to open the Saudi Arabia market with the new logo and to gradually transition to the standard logo. Unfortunately, little evidence remains of the logo created for the Saudi Arabia market, which is why I hang on to the white tumbler I have that bears the crown of the mermaid rising over the waves and remember fondly my unique experience in Riyadh.
Kathie with Muhammad and other members of the Alshaya team, standing by the SBUX logo on his bumper. Unfortunately, it was taken in a parking garage so it is quite dark. :(