Commentary

Starbucks' "Upstanders" Craves Piety By Association

There are a great many things about Starbucks that I like. It employs amiable people who care about customer satisfaction - or, if not, do a good job faking it. Its outposts, even the scaled-back ones at highway rest stops, exceed basic standards of cleanliness. On a personal level, it rarely fails to accommodate my most pressing needs, whether electrical (so many charging stations!) or caloric (so many calories!).

Alas, the things that I like about Starbucks may not be the ones that the company likes about itself. That’s my probably-wrong guess at the motivation behind “Upstanders,” a big honkin’ content initiative centered around ten immaculately produced videos of do-gooders doing good.

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For reasons I can’t comprehend, Starbucks seems to believe that I, and the 200,000,000 other caffeine-needy humanoids and wifi hobos it accommodates during the average morning rush, want the brand to be the stunt-coffee equivalent of a civics refresher class. Thus in the 10 “Upstanders” clips, Starbucks lectures us about “ordinary people making an extraordinary difference”: a college student attacking the problem of food waste, the individual generally given credit for decreasing the chronic homeless population in Utah, a former NFL player who devoted himself to training damaged war veterans, and more.

These are all amazing individuals. They have helped, in some cases, thousands of people. I am awed by their big-heartedness and energy, and I’m no slouch in those departments myself. Why, just the other day (at Starbucks, coincidentally enough) I gave the door I was walking through a hardy push, so that the person trailing six feet behind me might be able to slip through before it closed if she angled herself just right. Am I a hero? I’ll leave that for history to decide.

Anyway, what I didn’t do was trumpet this in a manner so heavy-handed as to drain it of genuine feeling. I couldn’t get through all ten “Upstanders” videos. I tried, but they were so devoid of humor and spontaneity - of anything suggesting that their protagonists might be sub-saintly beings - that I lost interest three minutes in. It was like hearing the same song ten times in a row.

For me, then, this becomes less about the videos themselves - super-competently made, less-than-thrillingly paced - than about Starbucks’ thinking. I get that there are many valid reasons for Starbucks to brand itself as the corporate admiral of the U.S.S. Decency. As just one of many examples, no global megachain can ever avoid criticism about driving mom-and-pop operations out of business - which hits Starbucks’ rep pretty hard, given how warmly many customers feel about those coffee shops it buried.

But there has to be a better way to shush these concerns than with the “Upstanders” campaign, which includes podcasts and town-hall-style events designed, per the press release, to “welcome local citizens and civic-minded organizations to learn about and share how we can all do more to create positive change.” It’s as if Starbucks craves piety by association, as if the brand believes goodness is as readily transferable as a concert ticket.

And yet there’s something tucked away in a lower corner of the “Upstanders” website that seems to provide an opportunity for Starbucks to offer a true public service (and enjoy the brand-burnishing benefits that comes with it). The site links to TurboVote.org, a site designed to get unregistered people on the voter rolls, and fast. Could voter-registration become Starbucks’ thing? It’s too late for 2016, but such an effort would do more to expand its do-gooder brand halo than calling attention to the good deeds of others.

Not to “actually…” y’all, but: Actually, many of us are pretty OK with Starbucks as is. While I’d prefer not to see the Starbucks brand in the same sentence as, say, “food-borne illness” or “Trump,” its primary utility to me lies in its predictability. I don’t know what I’m gonna get on a day-to-day basis from my job or my kids or my hamstrings; I know what I’m going to get when I walk into a Starbucks.

Maybe instead of trumpeting its superior humanity (as it does in “Upstanders”) or its real/imagined status as the center of every community (as it did in another recent campaign), Starbucks ought to focus more on the brand characteristics that keep people walking in the door. It won’t do much to affirm Starbucks’ self-image as the most responsible of corporate citizens, but it’d make for more honest - and lively - viewing. This? This plays like the fulfillment of a community-service requirement.
1 comment about "Starbucks' "Upstanders" Craves Piety By Association".
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  1. Mike Jensen from Midroll , September 16, 2016 at 6:05 p.m.

    I have watched the first of the video series segments and find them empowering and uplifting.  

    The section of your article below is a strong indication you don't "get it".  The people profiled are passionate, you look to find a laugh about the whole thing.  I would also ask if the mom and pop coffee shop is a dying breed, because I see many in the community thriving where most other mom and pop businesses do not.  If you want to pick a fight, how about going after the soda industry, so many evil players.  This company created a series of uplifting videos, and while it may help the brand, it might also be a catalyst for others to do good.  What is wrong with a brand offering something beyond a seasonal latte message, this would seem to be a win in my view. 

    I am awed by their big-heartedness and energy, and I’m no slouch in those departments myself. Why, just the other day (at Starbucks, coincidentally enough) I gave the door I was walking through a hardy push so that the person trailing six feet behind me might be able to slip through before it closed if she angled herself just right. Am I a hero? I’ll leave that for history to decide.

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