- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

A Midwest coffee chain in business for 12 years is rebranding itself in a move that has some saying it may have squandered business success for political correctness.

The East Lansing, Mich.-based Beaner’s Gourmet Coffee plans to change its name to Biggby Coffee because of concerns that its current name is also an ethnic slur against Hispanics. The company, with 79 franchisee-owned stores in nine states from Michigan to Florida, announced last week that the changeover would be complete by Jan. 31.

Bob Fish, chief executive officer of the former Beaner’s Gourmet Coffee, said reaction to the name change has been mixed. But as the company has expanded into new markets, he said, it has heard more comments about its name “to the point that we had to take a hard look at changing it.”

“It’s a cultural thing for our company,” Mr. Fish said. “We believe in inclusiveness totally. It’s just not within our mantra to have that sort of stigma attached to it.”

Mr. Fish added that the name switch was an internal decision not based on any pressure from outside groups.

“There are no lawsuits; there is no organization calling us,” he said. “There is not picketing and no one affiliated with the Mexican-American population is banging on our door” to complain.

“We ultimately felt we were condoning the use of a disparaging term if we chose to do nothing,” said Mr. Fish, who estimates the rebranding will cost the company close to $1 million. The company, which opened in 1995, projects annual sales at about $30 million and annual volume of 6 million cups of java.

Marketing analysts say the cost of such a revision is reasonable, given the long-term implications. Beaner’s, while a small but growing company, has to compete with giant coffee sellers such as Starbucks, which is one of the most powerful brands in the world, said Kenneth Hein, news editor at Brandweek magazine, a New York-based publication that covers the marketing industry.

“I think any time you are a smaller-type brand like they are and you are trying to expand nationally to compete with Starbucks or Caribou Coffee that you want to have a name as least offensive as possible,” Mr. Hein said. “If you want to be a big brand you have to be careful about what you are saying, who you are saying it to and how you are saying it.”

Political correctness in the marketplace is “part of the way that it is today.”

“By using a name like ‘Beaner,’ that has some slang connotations, there’s a good chance you might offend people, and you don’t want that as a brand that’s growing,” Mr. Hein said. “A million dollars isn’t a lot to pay to grow your future.”

Kate McNenly of Lansing, a frequent Beaner’s customer, said concern about the company’s name causes her “to roll my eyes and shake my head.”

Miss McNenly, who runs a graphic design firm that helps businesses brand their products and company image, isn’t impressed with the new name, despite the company’s yearlong efforts to work with a consultant and choose a name that reflected “simplicity and uniqueness.”

“Biggby Coffee as a franchise and coffee-shop name is meaningless,” she said. “It sounds like a badly spelled last name. Granted, the logo is a big ‘B’ but the name falls short of getting that across.”

One commenter at the conservative news site Free Republic quipped that maybe the company “will now be known as Undocumented Guest Coffee.”

Julie Shaffer, a Lansing nurse, also thinks the company might have gone too far. For her, the current name is inoffensive.

“When I hear the name Beaner’s, I think of coffee beans” and not an ethnic slur, she said.

Mr. Fish said he understands that some customers may have difficulty with the new name, but the products and store experience will remain the same. The company will continue to use its letter “B” logo and orange color scheme so the products will still be identifiable.

“We believe our customers will be supportive of our choice to do the right thing,” he said. The change “may seem very aggressive to some, but we like it.”

Added Mr. Hein, the marketing editor: “It’s better to have a something generic [like Biggby] to build off of rather than have a name that might anger some.”

Miss McNenly, however, wonders whether the rebranding isn’t a bad business move.

“Too bad the CEO didn’t anticipate success at the franchise level and name the brand Legume or Seeds,” she said. “If he had picked a non-offensive name … he may not have had to grapple with success.”

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