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Starbucks marketing campaign development analysis

Seattle, Moby Dick and fresh dark-roasted coffee beans were the seeds of one of the most successful coffee business in the world, ‘Starbucks Coffee, Tea, and Spice’, a company that in 2008 reinvented itself by coming back to its roots and traditions and matching its core social nature with a digital strategy across social media platforms and emergent technologies, becoming the most engaged brand online, even surpassing big brands like Coca-Cola and Red Bull.

A Leviathan is Born

Created in the year 1971 in the touristic location of Pikes Place Market in Seattle, with a name and original company logo, a circular seal with the wording "Starbucks Coffee – Tea - Spices" encircling a double-tailed mermaid, heavily influenced by Herman’s Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick [1] and reminiscent of the romance of the maritime tradition of the early coffee traders (Starbucks Corporation, 2010). - A popular video on Starbucks YouTube channel narrates the origins of the company, engaging customers and creating meaning.

But it wasn’t until August 1987, when Starbucks was acquired by the visionary and bold entrepreneur Howard Schultz, that the true potential of the coffee giant was unleashed.

“It wasn't until I discovered Starbucks that I realized what it means when your work truly captures your heart and your imagination.” (Schultz & Yang, 1997).

His epiphany for one of the most thriving corporations of the last decades, came during a business trip to Italy in the spring of 1983, Schultz envisioned that bringing home the vibrant and social experience of the typical Italian coffeehouse was a winning formula, a true unique differentiating feature at the time, that will skyrocket Starbucks directly to the hearts of the American people.

Close Encounters on the Third Place

With more than 17000 Starbucks stores in the world, spanning throughout 49 countries [2] , and with significantly higher prices than the market average [3] , the Starbucks enterprise is a tale of success, and a direct result of a genius social marketing and branding strategy. At the core of the business their signature fresh, dark-roasted, full-flavored coffee brews and beans consorting with specialty teas and blended beverages, the special ambiance, its principles and its sense of connection and community; it’s all about creating the ‘Starbucks Experience’, which is the soul of the business, a place to gather, talk and enjoy the allures of their savory brews, a ‘Third Place’ in people’s lives between home and work, for customers to feel perfectly comfortable and imbued with familiarity (Chalk, 2004). Connecting and engaging with the customers is a very important aspect of Starbucks philosophy and one of the reasons why they have been so successful in their social media strategy.

A Question of Loyalty

Starbucks has been known for spending very little money on advertising; opting for a more non-traditional form of publicity based on experience, and dependent on word-of-mouth.

As the company grew and evolved, “during the 1990s, a new Starbucks store was opening somewhere in the world every single working day” (Harris, 2007) it steadily enrolled in extending the Starbucks brand and penetrating new markets; seizing new opportunities and adapting to the new culture, not being afraid of exploring new areas, something that has been characteristic of Starbucks marketing strategies, especially relevant in the last 2 years.

Natural Born Millennials

Starbucks’ bedrock branding value is its ability to sell a seamless perfect hybrid between a highly customizable [4] service and the experience of authenticity; they have master the art of rendering authenticity and a sense of uniqueness, key elements in the current “experience economy” (Pine, 2004) and one of the main reasons Starbucks customers are happily willing to pay $4 or $5 for a cup of coffee.

Starbucks has thoroughly adapted its brand to the current trends and since 2008 has fully embraced the potentiality of the new social media in the era of technology; being remarkably good at grappling the ‘millennial zeitgeist’ [5] (Keeter & Taylor, 2009) - which are Starbucks primary current target demographic [6] - and at making their brand part of their lifestyle with campaigns like "Express Your Love!" for their custom Frappuccino [7] or Project Red [8] ; way ahead of the game in comparison with other well-known brands pursuing similar strategies, (e.g. Coca Cola [9] or Herbal Essence [10] ).

More than a Coffee

Starbucks has a strong online presence, its Facebook page exhibits a remarkable number of followers (14,917,600 with a weekly growth of 402,122) showcasing a popularity that not even Coca Cola has achieved [11] ; its fans are real passionate about it in a quasi-religious way, some of them going to the extent of creating dedicated web pages [12] 13or paying about 4 times the original price for a branded Starbucks cup on eBay [14] .

So it seems that the company has been thoroughly applying the winning formula of offering quality products with a premium service and engaging its customers in a parasocial relationship of sorts, similar to the one we observe in the relationship between some audiences and the entertainment agents, creating a bond between the brand and the consumer, a sense of belonging and the wish to “stay in touch”. (Vorderer, Klimmt, & Ritterfeld, 2004)

2008 A Branding Odyssey

It has been established the company’s conscious efforts towards building a relationship and creating interaction with its customers, but it took the company a few years of trial an error (see S.E.D. [i] ) to finally get the formula right and assimilate the prowess of social media. It wasn’t until 2008 that Starbucks finally started to get things right and to follow the path that will endow them with the very impressive feat of becoming the number one brand on Facebook (Error: Reference source not foundError: Reference source not found). In 2008 Howard Schultz made a comeback as CEO, refocusing the brand efforts into reigniting the emotional attachment of its customers. The importance of conveying this interaction with the brand into the online arena was brought in by Alexandra Wheeler, who was hired also in 2008 as the Director of Digital Strategy, and responsible of launching the thriving ‘My Starbucks Idea’ site, a social media initiative that promotes the concept that Starbucks is more than just a cup of coffee and refocus the attention on its customers. The company created this portal where Starbucks customers and employees can make suggestions and share ideas to further improve the ‘Starbucks Experience’, ingeniously getting their market to do their marketing and at the same time increasing their involvement with the brand, making them feel as part of the process of the decision making and by extension of Starbucks itself; a form of collaborative creation culture that is incredibly appealing to ‘millennials’ (Foreman, 2003), very much aligned with internet culture in general (e.g. Wikipedia) and in some ways similar to Microsoft’s strategy in their Windows7 campaign “I’m a PC, and Windows7 was my idea” [15] .

Complementing the site is the blog ‘Ideas in Action’, written by Starbucks employees and used to keep customers updated about what Starbucks is doing with those ideas provided by the community on the ‘My Starbucks Idea’ website and because comments are enabled, allowing a continued dialogue with the customers. (Wong, 2009)

The Social Networks

The video ‘If you vote, Starbucks buys your coffee’, part of the ‘You and Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee’ campaign, got more than 400,000 views.

http://www.youtube.com/user/Starbucks#p/u/2/a2J8KJDsqqY

This was a cross-media initiative, originally release as a 60-second TV spot on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and uploaded to YouTube on November 1st 2008, consequentially resonating all over the web. Starbucks promised to provide free coffee to those who voted; joining in the initiative with Ben & Jerry's, amongst others, that were also offering free products on Election Day. [16] 

With over 7839 people subscribed to the Starbucks YouTube Channel and their uploaded videos receiving views by the hundreds of thousands [ii] , this channel enables people to relate and participate more with the brand, keeping up to date with their latest campaigns and being entertained at the same time.

In 2009 Starbucks launched the cross-media channels ‘It’s not just coffee it’s Starbucks’ campaign advertising on magazines, billboards and newspapers and, harnessing the prowess of social media and channeling it to offline actions, prompting online followers to take pictures and be the first to post them on Twitter, an idea they got by observing what fans were already doing on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr every year for Christmas. The campaign was also supported on their YouTube channel with related material (Leahul, 2009). This campaign created relevant extensions of the online social experience and connections across platforms.

Also in 2009 the ‘Free Pastry Day’, where consumers could download and print a coupon from Starbucks.com or their Facebook page, drove their biggest traffic day ever without using traditional advertising [17] .

In 2010 Starbucks became the actual ‘Third Place’ where Americans login online by introducing one-click free Wi-Fi on their US stores (an idea generated on ‘My Starbucks Idea’ site), and in the fall of the same year Next Generation In-store Digital Content ‘Starbucks Digital Network’ (SDN), in partnership with Yahoo!, The New York Times, iTunes, documentary film site SnagFilms and ZAGAT amongst others, offering exclusive premium content to its customers at no cost and opening yet another channel for engagement and enhancing the ‘experience’ (Buskirk, 2010).

Starbucks entered the arena of avant-garde mobile applications and location-based technologies in 2010, joining Foursquare and Brightkite platforms. This sort of relevant mobile experience further cultivates customer loyalty by rewarding desired behaviors reinforced by some enticing game mechanics.

In addition to those initiatives, and following the emergent trend of Relevancy-Based Services (Malhotra & Kubowicz, 2009), Starbucks is also offering its customers Starbucks Card Mobile payment, granting the opportunity of using their smartphones as digital wallets [18] .

The Secret of their Success

Starbucks social media strategy consists of many different elements masterfully integrated and combined, involving millions of loyal fans boosting their branding. It was one of the first companies to adopt and take advantage of Twitter 'Promoted Tweets' [19] and, currently, one of the most tweeted brands [20] ; at least until the Old Spice campaign took internet by storm. At Starbucks they are aware of the cultural influence of Twitter, “If it doesn’t happen on Twitter it probably doesn’t matter” said Brad Nelson, ex-barista and current social media strategist responsible for Starbucks Twitter account. Looking at the way other brands, like competitor Dunkin Donuts [21] , have to interact with their followers, clear differences in the style are perceived and probably the reason why Starbucks has over a million Twitter followers and Dunkin Donuts just about 60.000. But is not only about Twitter, they know that they have to keep their content relevant and adding value without overloading across platforms, nurturing the organic connections that the digital media promotes, delivering a personal experience, galvanizing customers over a shared idea.

Without doubt, it can be inferred that their social media philosophy, the realization of the power and potential of those connections and the flawless exercise of their digital strategy, sparked Starbucks recuperation [22] and the increasing profit [23] in spite of the economic crisis.

“Meaningful engagement is about creating relationships, what social media is all about and not marketing”

Alexandra Wheeler, Director of Digital Strategy at Starbucks.

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