It seems like Marketing 101: the more people who know your brand, the better off you are as a business.  At least that seems to have been the common wisdom for quite some time– the bigger the better. For example, Wal-Mart is big, and they’re weathering the recession quite nicely, posting profits at a time when many businesses are struggling.

But is there a breaking point for brands– a point at which the bigness that once brought in consumers by the truckload turns into a sort of ubiquity that turns consumers off?

Recent moves by Starbucks might be an indication that there is such a breaking point.  If you haven’t followed it in the news on or blogs, Starbucks has recently started opening new coffee shops that do not bear the company’s familiar name, logo, and colors.  The stores, dubbed by some as”Stealth Starbucks” stores, look like small, independent coffee shops and often take the name of the street(s) on which they are located.

Here’s a look at one of them (photo via Seattle Times):

So what is a trademark lawyer or a marketing guru to take away from this phenomenon?

Bryant Simon, a professor at Temple University, who has published a book on Starbucks has some interesting thoughts in a piece for Reuters.  Prof. Simon cites a concept known as “brand avoidance,” which he argues is becoming an increasingly common behavior among consumers who find themselves alienated with a marketplace dominated by large players.  These consumers are looks for something smaller and more “authentic,” and business trends are reflecting this.  According to Prof. Simon, “the number of independent coffee houses in the U.S. has jumped past the number of chain store outlets, and now represent 54 percent of the coffee market.”

Starbucks isn’t the only iconic brand that’s experimented with non-branded offerings.  McDonald’s tried a similar idea with unbranded “Quarter Pounder” shops in Japan that had a sleek, almost night-club-like feel to them.

Are the consumers Starbucks is hoping to woo with its non-branded stores going to be drawn in by this business move?  Only time will tell.   It remains to be seen how these efforts to cater to brand avoidance will pay off.  Small businesses should see brand avoidance as an opportunity to bring in new customers.  (You’re already small, you don’t have to pretend that you are!)  And many larger companies have not yet reached the level of a Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Wal-Mart, so there’s no reason for them to dilute the strength of the brands their trying to build.  Sure, there’s room for speciality brands and other sub-brands, but the basic wisdom– keep growing your brand– still applies to most.

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