The first 'great coffee, good news' company

I love Starbucks. The coffee is great and I really admire CEO, Howard Schultz. He understands the social contract companies have to deliver more than just products and profits. Schultz does that, but he also knows he has a responsibility to engage with a broad range of people -- not just share owners -- and add value beyond a stock price and dividend.

Schultz and his company support veterans, are generous with employees, help create opportunities and jobs where few exist, and are unafraid to speak up on issues such as LGBT, race, and money in politics. You may have seen the Starbucks barista who handed out coffee and muffins to first responders after the recent bombing in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. 

Starbucks' communications leader, Corey duBrowa, is smart, creative and connected to the world in which his company operates. Corey works side by side with Schultz to drive the direction and strategy of Starbucks. Let's put it this way: if there was a fantasy league for chief communications officers, I'd draft Corey for my team.

So I watch with interest when Starbucks launches an initiative, including recently when it announced a new "content" campaign to tell the "true American story." Its genesis comes from Schultz's belief, as stated in a recent NPR interview, that the American media overemphasizes negative news and has "painted America with such a dark cloud." 

Schultz said Americans are longing for "heartwarming" stories about people who serve their communities and love their neighbors. Seeing this gap, Starbucks intends to fill it as skillfully as it makes your caramel macchiato. "Upstanders" is an original series produced by Schultz and a former Washington Post editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran about ordinary people who are making positive change in the world. The stories are or will be available on Starbucks' website and mobile app, on Medium and through and Upworthy. Starbucks also invites people to upload photos of themselves to its website as Upstanders who are "determined to make positive change."

It's excellent storytelling. There are powerful articles, videos and podcasts about 10 Upstanders. I admit to a little lip quiver when I watched a story about an impoverished village that gives college scholarships to all of its students. The series is non-partisan (Schultz has endorsed Hillary Clinton) but it bears some resemblance to a political campaign, including town halls hosted by Chandrasekaran and a link encouraging readers to register to vote.

The Upstanders campaign indeed tells the story of Starbucks as we see it every day — an organization that brings a deep passion and sense of responsibility to use its scale for the greater good.
— Corey duBrowa

What makes Upstanders different and something other companies and communicators should watch is that it is not overtly about Starbucks -- it has no Starbucks content or logo. Yet, it is the centerpiece of Starbucks' website and not some dusty “corporate responsibility” sidebar. By contrast, most companies produce "owned" content, but the story is largely limited to their own strategy, leadership, performance or efforts to do good.

Starbucks is saying it wants to become the great coffee, good news company. This raises two questions: Is it the responsibility of a public, for profit company to “raise the level of the national discourse,” as Schultz said on NPR; and, can it really make any difference in the national mood?

Corey’s answer to the first question is that during Starbucks’ 2016 share owner meeting, Schultz spoke about the responsibility of his company – individually and collectively -- as citizens. Here's how Corey framed it:

"We have 60 million-plus customers in the U.S. alone coming through our 10,000-plus stores in communities all over the country, giving Starbucks a unique opportunity, lens and, frankly, responsibility as citizens to comment about matters of importance to America," Corey explained to me. “The Upstanders campaign indeed tells the story of Starbucks as we see it every day – an organization that brings a deep passion and sense of responsibility to use its scale for the greater good.”

Fair enough.

Upstanders clearly is an expression of the type of company Schultz and his colleagues have and are building. One minor point I disagree with is Schultz’s assertion that Upstanders "is not about selling more coffee," marketing or PR. Of course it is. Upstanders, while an admirable assertion of American "goodness" in a dark election season, is meant to reinforce Starbucks reputation as a values-based, trustworthy company by associating it with admirable people.

To the second question, Corey said the campaign response has been terrific so far in earned media and in views and shares. More importantly, he says people are responding to the needs of the organizations called out in the series  -- one food-sharing initiative saw a 500 percent increase in unique daily visitors to its website. Clearly, a lot of good will come of Upstanders.

But can Starbucks get America buzzing about good news? That’s a “grande” chore at a time when many politicians see more value in dark roasting the American story.

'My fellow Americans: One-two-three-four!'

A very successful person once told me that the only person in the world he would trade places with is Bruce Springsteen. I told him, "Get in line."

Springsteen, the iconic American rocker is nearly everyone's wannabe. Almost 67, he is having a moment, as they say about the famous. Vanity Fair gave him the full Annie Leibovitz cover treatment in its October issue. His much-anticipated memoir, "Born to Run," comes out this month. And he is completing an acclaimed 84-show tour celebrating his seminal 1980 album, "The River."

I was at the final U.S. show last week in Gillette Stadium, the football palace just south of Boston in Foxborough. It was a rollicking 33-song, four-hour show with barely a breath taken between songs by the musicians or audience, which danced non-stop. It was an amazing demonstration of stamina and durability; someone should find out what Springsteen's indestructible vocal chords are made of so we can make airplanes and baby strollers out of the same material. 

My last Springsteen concert was 31 years ago at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, which has since been torn down. That Born in the U.S.A. Tour was a rocket ride of musical muscularity in Reagan-era America that was feeling pretty good about itself. The Foxborough show was less rock and awe and more introspection and validation of Springsteen's rise from blue collar nobody to the world's best rock-and-roller.

Springsteen at 1985 "Born in the U.S.A." show

Springsteen at 1985 "Born in the U.S.A." show

"Dorian" Springsteen at 2016 Foxborough show

"Dorian" Springsteen at 2016 Foxborough show

It began with some of his early songs (more than 40-years-old!) interspersed with spoken stories about Springsteen's frustrating attempts to break into the music business. The denouement of each story was a song.

For example, he recalled a record company executive telling him that an early version of his first album lacked a hit song. Standing alone with his guitar at the microphone, eyes closed and speaking softly while projected on 100-foot video screens, Springsteen looked and sounded like he still felt the sting of that rejection. But Springsteen's smile returned when he told the crowd that he went out and bought a rhyming dictionary, and "one-two- three-four!" Springsteen is into "Blinded By the Light," his first, very rhyming single ("Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summer..."). 

Another story recounted visiting a record company building for an audition and riding up, up, up in an elevator "above the trees...above the clouds...above where angels sing." As he arrived, a record company exec demanded, "Play me something." The story ends with Springsteen barking "one-two-three-four!" to begin "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City."

Music for Springsteen is not just a salve, but a celebration, which came when he took written requests from the audience via poster-size signs and one, "No Surrender," on a pleated paper fan. In the party-like encore, which lasted eight songs, Springsteen's genuine joy in performing saturated the stadium. 

It would have been easy for Springsteen and E Street Band to become one of those wax museum-like bands you see during on a PBS pledge week playing the same few songs over and over.  But Springsteen's endless well of creativity and passion for reinvention doesn't let that happen. The band's terrific new saxophonist is 36-year-old Jake Clemons, nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, the band's longtime larger-than-life sax man. Jake gives the band a new sense of energy and a feeling that this might go on forever, like the shows. Maybe it will. A 20-year-old college student sitting next to me said he and his friends love Bruce because "he writes music he cares about...I don't know...he's just a bad ass."

Indeed. I am not knowledgable or talented enough (see video below) to critique Springsteen's music so I'll just focus on how the concert made me feel. I left the show inspired, exhausted and wanting more. I couldn't remember the last time I felt that way walking away from a speech, show or athletic event.

Springsteen is real and raw, an open book that we want to read and re-read. Many political and business leaders, by contrast, are plastic and pinched, afraid to go off script for fear they may reveal some weakness, ignorance or bias. As a result, they are generic, uninspiring, even repugnant, despite their self-delusion of "boldness."

Springsteen is an approachable hero to the working class and affluent baby boomers who pack his concerts and buy his music. They like him even though his politics might not agree with theirs; Springsteen has supported John Kerry and President Obama and his "Long Walk Home" is not kind to President George W. Bush. In Foxborough, in his one brief political remark, he called this presidential election the "ugliest I've seen in my entire life" with appeals not to angels who sing, but "to our worse angels."

He is right. Maybe we need a little more originality, artistry and lyricism from political leaders. Here's an idea - maybe they should begin their speeches not with banalities, but with a meaningful and genuine personal story followed by Springsteen's catalytic words: "one-two-three-four!..."


30 pounds of fat

In my early teens I was convinced that I would play professional baseball. Preferably for the Yankees. I was a pretty good catcher and my Rawlings Johnny Bench model mitt was my favorite possession. I still remember the satisfying smell of its leather mixed with glove oil and the home plate-area dirt it had absorbed.

Nothing got by my Bench, which sadly, is long lost

Of course, I was delusional. The reality was I wasn't much of a hitter and my catching skills were barely good enough for high school and American Legion ball. Turns out being an All Star in the Hudson Little League -- go Bucks! -- and Babe Ruth Baseball is no guarantee of professional stardom, fame and wealth. 

I got a shockingly clear understanding of how pedestrian my baseball skills were when I was 13 or 14 years old. My father took me to see the team he loved and I hated, the Mets. From our perch in the second deck of Shea Stadium (hold on, an airplane is flying over and I can't hear myself write...okay, better now), I watched the Mets warming up on the field below. I was horrified. They could throw a baseball great distances -- 150, 200 feet or more -- on a line with seemingly little effort. They were sometimes talking and laughing as they did this! I knew I would never come close to throwing a ball that far even if I had a running start and I was throwing it down a steep hill.

My baseball dreams were over.

I had a similar shock recently when I spent a few days in the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina riding my road bike with professional cyclists. The inclines were murderous and the temperatures merciless -- 100 degrees with high humidity. Now, I never had delusions that I could be a pro cyclist but I thought, maybe I could hang for a while with the pros on these tortuous climbs. It would be a story I could tell the kids.

Reality again was cruel. On nearly every ride, I was what cyclists call the "Red Lantern," the last rider in the group (the phrase comes from the red lantern hung on the last car of a train). Sometimes by a lot. Sometimes I'd fall behind even though others were doing things like taking phone calls while riding. Sometimes I caught up only because the group stopped for water. I'd see them ahead lounging in the shade of pine trees and wonder if they were talking about me.

I'd dismount and break out the excuses: "Did I mention I'm 56 years old?" Or, "Hey, I've had five knee surgeries." And "It's never this hot in Connecticut." They responded only with their eyes. 

Actually, they are all great guys and they often hung back with me to provide encouragement and instruction. But clearly I am not made of the same stuff as them. You can see it by just looking at the photo below. I am the shorter guy with the unshaved legs among three retired American cycling titans: Christian Vande Velde, George Hincapie and Bobby Julich.

Which one is not like the others?

Which one is not like the others?

Let me be more specific about the differences between these pros and me:

  • Body: Even in retirement, these guys are lean and, I am, well, gelatinous. I figured I had about 30 pounds of fat on these guys. That's like strapping an average-sized English Cocker Spaniel on my back, although I don't know why anyone would do that. 
  • Frame:  They are all legs, like Vegas show girls. I am no legs, like a Corgi.
  • Skills: They could cook a five-course meal while riding. I couldn't order take out.
  • Experience: They have competed in the world's great races such as the Tour de France against and with Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and Fabian Cancellara. In a recent charity ride, I got passed by a guy pulling a bike trailer with two kids in it.

Dreams are hard to give up and hills are hard to get up. I did both on the rural backroads of South Carolina.  


In Praise of Arm Hanging

One of my favorite things to do in summer is to drive with the windows down, the music cranked and my arm hanging out the window – the crook of my elbow on the sill and my hand extended straight down.

Red Sheffer exhibiting Air Force cool

I got this from my dad, who looked super cool driving around our hometown, Hudson, NY, with his left arm hanging out the window of his white Pontiac. Dad, known to everyone as Red, had long, sun-freckled arms and a shock of red hair that warned everyone he was ready for a good time. The editors of his high school yearbook recognized his capacity for fun, writing that whenever there was a party, "Red's around." He was not deterred from this perspective by military service or getting married and having four children. Even the corporate chill of his employer IBM could not cool Red.

Cars were very important to him. As a young father, he bought the cars Detroit made during its glory days – long, sleek and muscular. When he grabbed his keys and asked if anyone wanted to go to the store with him to buy cigarettes, the Sheffer kids would put up our hands. We knew there was the possibility of candy, including my favorite, red rope licorice.

Dad would light up a cigarette as we drove to resupply his habit. He’d cup the cigarette in his hand, which hung all the way down to the middle of his door.  I watched his cigarette carefully from the back seat and wondered to myself if the wind was smoking it as he held it outside the car. One time he tossed a finished butt out the window and, to our horror, it was blown by the wind into the back seat. We all scrambled to find the small torch and disposed of it out the window as Dad watched calmly in the rear-view mirror.

My cars and my arms are shorter than Dad’s and I don’t smoke but I still mimic him when driving around Hudson. I know "10 and 2" driver's ed teachers are anti-arm hangers -- and rightfully so -- but there are advantages, including the ability to do a quick, lukewarm wave when you see someone you know, but not that well. Don't make eye contact, just flip your hand casually.

Arm hanging says I'm local, I know where I'm going and there's no hurry. There’s also the trucker’s tan but more importantly, you get to inflict your great taste in music on others. The three best songs for automotive arm hanging are: Hey Jude by The Beatles; No One to Run With by The Allman Brothers Band; and, Travelin’ Man, by Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band. There will be no arguments on this.

Admittedly, there are times when arm hanging is a bad idea, such as in heavy traffic, the months of November to March in the Northeast, after you’ve waxed your car, as you pull into the driveway of your prospective in-laws for the first time, and when following a truck carrying loose stone and gravel.

Some say the art of arm hanging reached its peak in the 1950s as portrayed in the movie, American Graffiti. I say its zenith was the 1960s on the streets of Hudson and its Picasso was my dad, Red Sheffer.