The hubbub over Starbucks' new logo is a good excuse to remember how and why companies choose certain brand imagery. The old logo, having been well plastered into consumers' minds over the last 15 years or so (Side note: As a young Microsoft sales rep, I remember using Starbucks as a "demo" company when showing the new version of Office 95...Few people outside of the Pacific Northwest new the company then, but everyone commented on the logo), will be an interesting icon to transition.
What many don't realize is that the "new" logo is actually a journey back to the original. When George Schultz took over the tiny coffee chain in Seattle back in 1985 after finding inspiration in Italy, the logo looked like this:
So as you can see, the "new" look is almost identical to the original, with the exception of a bit more modesty for the mermaid (it's like one of those "what's different in these pictures" games; note the strands of hair...Still hasn't headed off odd calls for a boycott though. Really? Over a mermaid?).
What message is Starbucks trying to send? Well, consider how Mr. Schultz has been trying to focus Starbucks "back to the basics" due to perceived over-saturation and dilution of quality. Mirroring the re-training of baristas and a "coming back" to the original brand values, the logo decision could be reflecting this recommitment to the original inspiration and quality of the brand.
The best brand icons generate an immediate emotional spark that reflects the emotional archetype the brand is going after. Most brands need to fill that imagery with meaning over time (what would an apple logo really mean without the history of Apple's brand?), but smart branders select brand icons that come partially filled already (the Nike swoosh is a good example).
You can follow this and other interesting evolutions of logos at the http://www.logoblog.org site.