The Starbucks Mermaid

The Starbucks mermaid doesn’t have a name, but her creator does: graphic artist and advertising guru Terry Heckler. In the 1970s, the Seattle-based Heckler would brainstorm ideas for the new coffee company that his creative partner, Gordon Bowker, wanted to launch.

It was Heckler who came up with the name, a reference to Mr. Starbuck, first mate aboard the Moby Dick. “Seattle being a town settled by seafaring Scandinavians, we wanted to evoke the siren-song of the sea,” Bowker recalls. The name sounded right, so Heckler started looking through old books for illustrations of sirens, sprites, water nymphs, mermaids. The earliest version was brown and fierce-looking; her breasts had nipples, and her tail was forked. Eventually all that softened. and Heckler’s original, bare-breasted sea serpent became a friendlier melusine, then the current iteration (no longer a seductive siren, more of a mermaid).

wrote about the evolution of the company “mark” a couple of times over the years. Along the way, Starbucks not only ditched references to coffee in its logo, and, in a move that still seems shocking, even removed its own name from the logo.

Heckler told me, at the time, that it was “a horrible misjudgment” to remove the words Coffee and Starbucks from the logo. “Now she just looks like a princess with a crown on her head.”

That may be, but a new story in described what happened when the global branding firm Lippincott took over in 2011. The problem with the face, they decided, was its symmetry. It was too perfect.

So they made the tiniest tweak: the mermaid’s left eye drops down just a tiny fraction lower than the right eye.

“In the end, just for the face part of the drawing, there’s a slight asymmetry to it. It has a bit more shadow on the right side of the face,” says design partner Bogdan Geana. “It felt a bit more human, and felt less like a perfectly cut mask.”

Like fashion editors airbrushing photographs, the Lippincott designers pushed, pulled, stretched, even recolored their model  “In the end we decided that giving her a mythical, mysterious, alluring quality was something we wanted to retain,” Geana said. But a perfect mask would turn the mermaid into a Barbie Doll. Hence the deliberate imperfection. 

Heckler is retired and had no immediate comment on the FastCoDesign story. In addition to Starbucks, his clients included Rainier Beer, K2 Skis, Panera Bread, Cinnabon, Ivar’s, New Balance, and Red Hook.

When his clients hit the big time, they “usually go public and have to work with an agency with international credentials.,” he told an interviewer in 2011. “Then we do special projects work for them.”

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