Starbucks Turns A BOGO Promotion Into A Political Movement, Nation To Elect Venti Skim Chai Latte

Every week, we want to highlight an example of a brand that’s making amazing use of content. This week, it’s Starbucks and their Come Together campaign to end the government shutdown.

In early October, a company famous for overly-complex drink orders (venti-double-double-decaf-caramel-mocha-cap-no-foam, anyone?) sent a simple message to the United States government: End the shutdown.

With an open letter from CEO Howard Schultz and a petition with three demands for the government, Starbucks launched their Come Together campaign. A week later, the petition boasted two million signatures, the campaign had generated some serious media attention, and legislators threw up their hands and reopened the government at Starbucks’ behest.

Oops. Sorry, that last point should read “a bunch of people bought each other coffee,” but of course, that was the point. Starbucks’ Come Together campaign expertly achieved the goal that is so evident in all of their marketing efforts – positioning Starbucks as a brand that is all about community (so why would you buy your tall-skim-dirty-chai anywhere else?).

Sincerity with a shot of misdirection

“Starbucks will offer up its thousands of stores across the nation to give the millions of customers who come through our stores every week, and thousands of partners (employees) who serve them, an opportunity to have their voices heard by signing our petition,” wrote Schultz in his letter.

That was the sincere offer made by a CEO who had long ago committed to the image of Starbucks as a brand that promotes community and common ground.

“Starbucks has always been about bringing people together,” said Econsultancy‘s Head of Social Matt Owen. “They do it very well. It goes back to their whole idea of getting your name on your cup to make it a more personal experience. I think this is kind of an extension of that.”

Because the message of the letter and the intent of the petition rang so true with the Starbucks’ brand, it resonated as sincere and powerful – never mind that the in-store promotion was essentially just a two-day, feel-good BOGO deal on coffee.

Starbucks is very good at that. It’s just like having people take photos of themselves in their local store and posting them online.”

“Given the nature of the situation, there was probably not as much risk in getting involved as in political debates about guns or gay marriage,” said Owen. “I don’t think saying that government should start working again is quite controversial.”

That’s not to say the campaign was free of risk. Given it’s comprehensive nature, trickling down from the letter and petition to everywhere from the company’s social media accounts to their physical stores, there was certainly some preparation, all of which hinged on the government actually shutting down and remaining shut down through the completion of the campaign. But then, asked Owen, when isn’t marketing a calculated risk?

“There is a risk with any campaign,” he said. “With anything you roll out, there is is always a risk that is just won’t work.”

Trend watching, and waiting, and reacting

With two million signatures and a photo of Starbucks’ employees delivering the petition on the very day the government reopened, it’s safe to assume Starbucks filed the Come Together campaign as a “success.”

How did they pull it off? According to Owen, it had a lot more to do with watching, waiting and agility than innovation. Though an open letter to the federal government and corresponding petition may be fairly unique pieces of branded content, both actually have precedent in the industry. What more is a petition, after all, than another form of crowdsourced content?

“It’s all about getting your customer to create content for you,” said Owen, noting the two million names were the primary appeal of the content, rather than the petition’s three lines of demands. “Starbucks is very good at that. It’s just like having people take photos of themselves in their local store and posting them online.”

The letter, and the campaign itself, is also part of a trend – that of trend watching. What made the impact so big for Starbucks was having the patience to wait for the trend – or, in this case, news story – that was compatible with their brand.

“You do see brands doing this kind of trend watching, but it is usually, ‘shall we do a twerking video’ rather than ‘shall we get involved in politics.'” Owen said. “I think that’s a big part of the success of the content, not trying to shoehorn your brand into something that doesn’t fit the brand values.”

It’s that fidelity to its long-running brand that makes the Come Together campaign appear more seamless than, for example, Oreo’s 2012 rainbow-hued cookie image posted in support of gay rights, which surprised cookie lovers across the political spectrum and kicked up a bit of a controversy.

The clincher in the game of trend-watching, said Owen, is after waiting for the right trend to come along, a company must be agile enough to jump on it in hurry. It’s more than a little impressive that a company the size of Starbucks pulled that off.

“That’s about your internal structure as a brand,” he said. “How many layers of sign-offs does it take to get a piece of content out? Or can someone make a Vine and put it out there straightaway?”

I think that’s a big part of the success of the content, not trying to shoehorn your brand into something that doesn’t fit the brand values.”

Starbucks clearly maneuvered swiftly on Come Together, with the campaign filtering through all of its social media channels and into stores with lightning speed.

The conditions that surrounded the Come Together campaign were so ideal, its success could almost be called a lucky break – if Starbucks wasn’t clearly a company with a savvy marketing strategy and a clever CEO at the helm. After all, if luck is the intersection of preparedness and opportunity, Starbucks clearly had the former under control.

What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? It’s something we created at Contently because we believe in a world where marketing is helpful, and businesses grow by telling stories that people love. Take advantage of our tools and talent and come build that world with us.

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