Starbucks, I Done You Wrong! #smwin

Starbucks is more socially responsible than I thought.
Starbucks is more socially responsible than I thought.

One of the great things about “social media” is the ability to engage in conversations with a variety of people, anywhere in the world, on pretty much any topic of interest, no matter how obscure or inane. Thanks to forums, blogs and Facebook, I’ve connected with poets, writers, comic book fans and creators, and re-connected with friends and family, past and present, most of whom I don’t get to see nearly as often as I used to. pulled me deeper into a political campaign than I’d ever been.

On Twitter, the shiny objet du jour, I’ve connected with insightful marketing and publishing professionals with whom I’ve had many interesting conversations and from whom I’ve learned a lot.

From a marketing perspective, new social media tools offer an incredible opportunity for companies to engage with customers (and potential customers) on a level that old-school interruption advertising and media relations simply can’t come close to. While some choose to avoid them completely or approach them tactically for preemptive damage control, I prefer to see them enabling proactive engagement, joining the community and participating in the conversation, no matter which direction it goes… and sometimes it can go in unfortunate directions, as Amazon found out a few weeks ago.

Somewhat less dramatically, I got into an unexpected conversation with Starbucks last week, first on Twitter and then on the telephone as they reached out offering to have a more in-depth discussion about my concerns regarding what I perceived as a less-than-enthusiastic embrace of Fair Trade coffee, cynically accusing them of typical PR spin.

Impressed by the offer to engage, and curious how it would play out, I agreed and on Tuesday evening had a great phone call with Dennis Macray, Director of Ethical Sourcing, with thanks to Brad Nelson, Associate Product Manager, Online Strategy for making the connection.

Macray struck me as incredibly sincere — not at all the PR flack I was expecting — someone who truly believes in what he’s doing and has a passion for it. He patiently filled me in on Starbucks’ Shared Planet intiative and Ethical Sourcing policy, two things that are too-subtly hinted at in their new branding campaign — “It’s Not Just Coffee. It’s Starbucks.” — but that should really be at the core of the story they’re trying to tell.

I took some notes during the call, but at several points was too engaged in my conversation with Macray to get everything down, and he graciously circled back to a few key points so I could confirm I had them right:

Specialty coffees (Starbucks, Green Mountain) vs. commodity coffees (Folgers, Bustelo)

  • Specialty = 100% Arabica coffees; direct relationships with farmers ensures sourcing
  • Starbucks buys 3% of global coffee production, only specialty
  • Fair trade accounts for only 1% of global coffee production, including specialty and commodity
  • 25% of Fair Trade sold in North America is sold by Starbucks

Ethical sourcing covers full supply chain, whereas Fair Trade focuses specifically on farmers.

  • Fair Trade philosophy was always part of their business model; laying the groundwork, establishing standards took time
  • Instead of using leverage to drive down prices (a la Wal-Mart), Starbucks is trying to apply Fair Trade concepts to the entire industry
  • Learned from growers to develop and refine standards

2004 – C.A.F.E. Practices launched, approx. 10% of their coffee was ethically sourced
2009 – 77% ethically sourced
2015 – Goal: 100% ethically sourced

By the end of the conversation, I was fully convinced of Starbucks’ seriousness about social responsibility, and while there is always room to improve, I officially lifted my personal quasi-boycott of them yesterday afternoon and bought a grande Caffè Americano!

I did suggest to both Macray and Nelson that their Shared Planet site could use some tweaking to make it more consumer-friendly — it’s got a very slick, investor relations feel right now — and after poking around it some more, it would be great if the social elements were more prominently featured and easier to share.

My Starbucks Idea and the Volunteer 2 Volunteer social network are impressive initiatives, but they’re kind of buried, both on the Shared Planet site and the main Starbucks site, and not mentioned at all in the first round of the new ad campaign. I’d love to have the “Mug Pledge” (pictured) as a widget that I could plug in here, or share on Facebook, so hopefully those elements will quickly be added into their story-telling initiative and be emphasized over the more traditional “value” elements like breakfast deals and ego-driven status branding:

So we’re embarking on a long-term, story telling campaign focused on the quality, value and our values.  The campaign will build over time, and take advantage of multiple channels, both traditional and non-traditional, supporting all of the distribution points in our business.  It will also be a validation for our customers – and our partners – of what Starbucks is all about and what we stand for.

Interestingly, while our interaction was a clear victory for Starbucks that wouldn’t have been achieved via their advertising campaign alone — winning over someone who at a minimum will become a regular customer again, and could potentially become a minor evangelist — the ads did spark the conversation, bringing up the important questions about the scalability and ROI of social marketing, and where customer service and PR fit into the picture.

Nelson spent a little bit of time interacting with me initially, and then arranging the phone call; he and Macray spent 45 minutes on the phone with me — generously call it 2 hours of their combined time, and then multiply that by the 178,952 followers they have on Twitter or 1,467,348 fans on Facebook. That’s not scalable.

Where were the evangelists, the Starbucks Truth Squads? Why didn’t one of those million+ fans step up in their defense and set me straight about Ethical Sourcing? Why aren’t there any Ethical Sourcing talking points; a one-sheet PDF that covers the key highlights I noted above, most of which are less than 140 characters?

If the ultimate goal of social marketing (or conversational marketing) is to empower your fans to speak on your behalf, to create evangelists who spread your gospel far and wide, Starbucks is definitely on the right track and further ahead of most, but they’ve got plenty of room to do so much more and, as a result, do much more good.

I’m looking forward to seeing how things unfold with their new campaign, and hope they embrace the full range of social media tools to enable their fans to help share their own Starbucks stories.

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6 thoughts on “Starbucks, I Done You Wrong! #smwin

  1. did they talk to you about maybe going for Rainforest Alliance?

    did they mention how they wait until a coffee is doing well at an independent shop (there are a few that they watch including the one I used to work at here in Austin) and then buy up all those beans to be “competitive”? they stoled my Brazilian pea-berry that Mozart's used to carry for that exact reason. and then…

    did they mention that they still proceed to burn the crap out of the beans because they can't bother to roast with the Italian method properly or teach someone to but they don't want to spend the time to roast with the German method because it takes longer? I don't have a problem with them buying the beans if they're going to roast them properly. but they aren't. it doesn't matter to them because most people don't know what they want in coffee.

    I still get way more than a lousy $0.10 off my coffee at independent shops for bringing my own cup. recently in LA I got an iced chai for the price of a coffee refill, just because I brought my own cup!

    and I prefer free wi-fi which will never happen at Starbucks… not that they can't afford it.

    the one thing I really do like about them, though, is that they treat their employees really really well. they even give health benefits to the significant others of gay and lesbian couples. that's a really reason to support them.

  2. Hey, Panika! Our discussion centered on Ethical Sourcing and Fair Trade, not their competitive practices, which I also touched on in the initial post. While I think they are overly aggressive, that's capitalism, for better or worse, and their approach to GLBT benefits is one of many things that puts them above the average corporation.

    I think indie cafés have to focus on more than just serving quality coffee to compete with Starbucks, tapping into the local community and culture and becoming a destination.

  3. I really do feel that more and more companies are taking the internet seriously. If they didn't they would evantually see lots of business loss.

  4. Great post. Some of these elusive evangelists are over at Boing Boing:

    See comments following the initial post.

    I had a similar reaction as you after talking with real people behind the corporate curtain at Starbucks. Especially the those involved with sourcing. They are passionate about doing things right. I think they fail at demonstrating this to people, but maybe that's an impossible feat for a corporation of that size.

  5. Great post. Some of these elusive evangelists are over at Boing Boing:

    See comments following the initial post.

    I had a similar reaction as you after talking with real people behind the corporate curtain at Starbucks. Especially the those involved with sourcing. They are passionate about doing things right. I think they fail at demonstrating this to people, but maybe that's an impossible feat for a corporation of that size.

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