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 Mic.com 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.
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.”
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.