Starbucks stays true to storytelling core

Retailer battles corporate-giant misperception by giving a behind-the-scenes tour of its supply chain

Retailer battles corporate-giant misperception by giving a behind-the-scenes tour of its supply chain

Starbucks is ubiquitous. At this point, there's almost no other way to describe the coffee maker/retailer's presence in metro and suburban areas in the US. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks, said the reason for so many locations was that it alleviated overcrowding.

Consumers want and will wait in some very long lines for a $3 or $4 cup of coffee, latte, or caramel machiatto, so it's hard to blame the Seattle-based company for seemingly having a store on every street corner. But to many people, Starbucks, along with Wal-Mart and a handful of others, represents all that is wrong with the business landscape in the US. It's viewed as the over- bearing corporate giant pushing out all the smaller competitors.

"I think we and many others get lumped in together," says Audrey Lincoff, VP of global brand communications at Starbucks, when asked if she thinks people view Starbucks and Wal-Mart as one in the same. "We believe and know that we are different. We want to be able to show that. We know we're not perfect, and we know we always have things to work on, but we do a significant number of really amazing things every day. [However,] because we have a large presence and people don't know about the things we do, they assume. And they think, 'Gosh, they're on every corner, and they're taking over the world.' I think that's where some people go, and it's easy to do that."

To battle this misperception that Lincoff believes exists, Starbucks is using a media-and consumer-focused PR initiative called "Voices Behind the Bean."

Lincoff says the idea behind the program is to show what makes the product successful.

"At Starbucks, we often start with questions, and the question posed here was, 'What makes coffee good?'" Lincoff explains. "We recognized that it's the people who contribute to it at every level of the supply chain. So starting with the coffee farmers and going all the way to the people who serve our coffee in our stores every day, we wanted to show people how they contribute."

And from its early beginnings, Starbucks has always relied on word-of-mouth buzz as opposed to traditional advertising. "We have always tried to use storytelling as a way to put a human face to things and share experiences," Lincoff says. "So we found it to be a very effective way to tell our story versus a significant amount of traditional advertising, which we really don't do."

The program, which formally started last year, initially began with Starbucks taking journalists to Costa Rica for a three-day visit with the farmer support center, the farmers themselves, and exporters. "We want farmers to share their story with journalists, and we have them meet with the support center and exporters to get an idea of how the entire supply chain works," Lincoff says.

She says the ideal time for visits is a 100-day stretch between November and February and that the goal is to do about four visits a year with 12 to 15 journalists at a time. And there is a good possibility that the program will extend beyond Costa Rica.

"I would like to see how we format it, make sure that it works, really refine it, and then look at other countries," Lincoff says. "If you think about Africa, we grow coffee there and have a lot of water initiatives and projects going on; that would be great to marry those two together."

Media outlets that have already taken part include The Discovery Channel and some international business journalists. Lincoff says she is currently working on bringing members of the national US print media, such as business journalists from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. "We're working on that set of folks for the next trip in January," she notes.

Starbucks is now expanding the program, telling the story of the Voices Behind the Bean directly to the consumer audience.

"Our customers ask us: 'What are you doing? How does this work? Tell us about coffee,'" Lincoff says. "There's an increased need to communicate with our customers because people want to know."

So Starbucks this fall has made a card containing images and stories from a coffee farmer. In addition, it has produced videos called Farmer Stories online.

"If you go back to the core, it's using storytelling to highlight why our coffee is good; that's the very simple premise and is consistent with who we are," Lincoff says. "Voices Behind the Bean... has now become an umbrella for telling stories. That's how we're enhancing it. From the Starbucks prospective, it definitely addresses the question that we have had [asked]: Do we pay our farmers fairly, and are people in the
supply chain treated fairly, including the people in our stores?"

AT A GLANCE

Company:
Starbucks

CEO:
Jim Donald

Headquarters:
Seattle

Revenues and Latest Earnings:
Q3 2006 net revenue was $2 billion, net earnings were $145 million

Competitors:
Regional competitors in some markets, Dunkin' Donuts

Key Trade titles:
Coffee Talk, Coffee and Tea Journal

PR Budget:
Undisclosed

Marcomms Team:
Anne Saunders, SVP, global brand strategy
Brad Stevens, VP, US marketing
Audrey Lincoff, VP, global brand comms
Holly Rosenfeld, marketing manager

Marketing Services Agencies:
PR: Edelman, other regional firms
Advertising: Widen & Kennedy

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