How Starbucks Harnesses Creative Collaboration

Think YOU have a challenging workload? Every two months, Starbucks launches a new in-store promotion in more than 23,000 stores around the world. All-new design concepts, all-new creative output … every eight weeks … 52 weeks a year. The work doesn’t stop.

How does the Starbucks creative team pull it off? Collaboration is the key. And they’ll talk about how it all happens at HOW Design Live. Dena Blevins, Creative Director Global Promotions & Brand will head up a panel discussion with her Starbucks colleagues, Account Director Melissa Bush, Creative Director Steve Murray, VP Jeffrey Fields and VP Nancy Poznoff titled Building a Strong Brand Through Collaboration.

As the brand shifts its seasonal look from a “Pumpkin Spice” fall theme to wintery holiday imagery, we asked Blevins about what it’s like to maintain creative energy amid a constant workflow and how collaboration is key. She describes the office as fast-moving, busy and intense — but “we play nice,” Blevins says. “We have a lot of respect and love for each other.”

Throughout the studio area, she says, you’ll find artists and designers painting, sketching, printing, creating all the artwork for promotions, packaging and products. Each season brings a new aesthetic to the Starbucks look. And, as you might expect, there’s coffee. Lots of it. Coffee stations in every aisle, with grinders, scales, gadgets to make the perfect pour-over cup. “It smells amazing!” Blevins raves.


Part of a summer campaign to promote new and old flavors of the customer-favorite Frappuccino

How is the company’s creative function organized? Roughly how many creative staffers work there, and how is the team structured?
The Starbucks Global Creative studio is part of the marketing organization. We have a team of about 160 — composed of talented designers, writers, illustrators, pre-press specialists and producers. The creative team is divided into two main groups that report into two Vice Presidents that support different aspects of the business. One VP supports advertising, brand, promotional work, and visual merchandising. The other VP supports merchandise design, packaging, Starbucks Reserve & Roastery. One thing to note too, this work includes our other brands as well: Teavana, Evolution Fresh and Tazo.

Tell us about your team’s work — I assume that you touch EVERYTHING, from coffee sleeves to seasonal store decor to merchandise.
Yes, my team supports the brand work and all of the in-store promotional work you see in our stores around the world. I have one team that supports brand work, two teams that support promotional work for retail North America, one team that supports international promotions, and one team that supports Teavana promotions. In promotions, there are certain times of the year that the we affect almost everything in our stores — specifically our annual holiday promotion. The store signage completely flips: everything from menus, to banners, to our shopping bags, and most importantly our iconic red cups that signal the beginning of the holiday season. Every year, I am so proud of the work our studio produces. Every year I feel like it is our best work ever — and I feel that way again right now. Our holiday promotion just launched in our stores, our red cups are being carried in customer’s hands around the world — it is really incredible! I love my job.


Above and below: Part of Starbucks fall campaign celebrating all things autumnal; artist Victor Melendez created the seasonal illustrations


The theme of your panel presentation is collaboration — how does your team embrace a culture of collaboration? And how does that enable you to produce the enormous volume of work you do?
Yes, collaboration is so key. Working in our creative studio here is very different than my experience working at a typical ad agency. We collaborate across functions and across teams. We have our “clients” down the hall, our marketing partners, and we’re all equally passionate about the brand, and doing what’s right for our brand. We think long term, not short term, and consider how the decisions we make affect every aspect of our business. Will it resonate with our customers? Does it elevate our brand? Does it make our partners (baristas) proud?

Starbucks commissioned Seattle artist Shogo Ota to create an illustration (a single line) on the windows for its flagship stores in NYC and Seattle; he also illustrated a limited-edition green cup to signify human connection

Starbucks commissioned Seattle artist Shogo Ota to create an illustration (a single line) on the windows for its flagship stores in NYC and Seattle; he also illustrated a limited-edition green cup to signify human connection

What’s your team’s biggest challenge, and how do you work to overcome it?
Timelines. As a company, we try to be nimble, and make shifts in strategies and businesses as needed — and that can cause timelines to get crunched. So, our biggest challenge is trying to do our best work in the time allowed. That can lead to pulling in people from other teams to help out—again, that’s the importance of collaboration. We divide and conquer. Once our work is out in the world, it is truly a team effort.

Even if you don’t work with a brand as massive as Starbucks, you can learn from the team’s experience about how to manage your project load, how to work with colleagues and how to stay inspired year ’round. Hear from creatives from Starbucks and other leading brands including Coca-Cola, Hallmark, GE and more at HOW Design Live 2017. Check out the amazing lineup of speakers, browse the full conference program and choose your own ideal agenda.