digital storytelling
Marketing Content Strategy

Is Starbucks’ “Upstanders” Honest Digital Storytelling or a Marketing Stunt?

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Starbucks has launched a new digital storytelling series with an eye on positive human experiences—a move it insists is about bridging a journalistic gap, not marketing or PR.

The new series, called Upstanders, features online articles, podcasts, and video stories focused on individuals who embody compassion, empathy, and a drive to make communities better. The content is distributed via Starbucks’ own website and mobile app, as well as other online media including Mic and Upworthy, Business Insider reported.

With Upstanders, Starbucks aims to tell positive stories about ordinary people making their communities and the world better, akin to a digital Chicken Soup for the Soul. Against a backdrop of media negativity and a nasty election, the brand is trying to cultivate optimism—one human interest story at a time. “These stories need to be told, and I think we have an opportunity given how many millions of people come into Starbucks to share those stories,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told Marketplace. “It’s not a marketing gimmick; it’s not PR.”

Positivity in Branding

Stories, like those in the Upstanders series, tend to be highly emotional. Brands have long known that establishing an emotional connection with their consumers is key to driving brand awareness and loyalty. The more emotionally connected the consumer, the more valuable that individual can be to a brand.

Researchers Scott Magids, Alan Zorfas, and Daniel Leemon envision this journey as a pathway from no emotional connection to fully connected. At each stage, the consumer becomes more valuable, as they noted in a Harvard Business Review article.

In retail, for example, researchers found that fully connected consumers account for just 22 percent of consumers—yet they comprise 37 percent of revenue, spending on average twice as much as highly satisfied customers. Brands want satisfied customers, but the real growth driver is in stoking their emotions.

Digital storytelling is one way to tap into that emotional connection. Emotional stories tend to connect with consumers in a more profound way, and the proliferation of social media and video has made it easier to share these compelling, tug-at-your-heartstrings kinds of tales. Positive, uplifting stories are often the norm, but even so-called sadvertising is effective—share a story that brings on the tears, and you’ve made a powerful emotional connection with the consumer.

Brands are using this template to tell stories with fictional characters—Duracell’s tearjerker hearing aid commercial, or Google Search’s touching “Reunion” video, are two great examples.

Of course, there’s an argument that using “real people” to tell stories may enhance the authenticity factor for the brand. The widely popular Humans of New York blog shows the power of sharing the human experience of everyday people. Those featured by photographer Brandon Stanton aren’t celebrities or social media influencers, but they do open a window into the complexities of what it is to be a human being, messiness and all.

Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign is perhaps the most famous example of a brand using regular people to make an impact. But many brands have deployed the strategy. Brands also look inward to tell real people stories; Lowe’s features its own employees to help share its story.

What’s unique about Starbucks’ content strategy is that it seems to be eager to tackle sticky issues, like religious tolerance, homelessness, the role of police, and poverty. Starbucks clearly wants to offer more than a saccharine view of humanity, and instead take on difficult topics and tease out how individuals are addressing those issues to make their communities better places.

For example, “The Mosque Across the Street” tells the story of how a pastor in the Bible Belt overcame ignorance about Islam and embraced his Muslim neighbors, while encouraging his congregation to do so, too.

Starbucks seems to be betting that a more unfiltered take will help differentiate it from other branded offerings—while perhaps also resonating more powerfully with the reader, too.

Why Starbucks Benefits

Why would Starbucks invest in this type of content strategy, if it insists it isn’t a form of marketing?

Starbucks has previously shown its desire to be a values-based company by aligning its marketing efforts with social issues it feels are important. Its Race Together initiative—which faced considerable backlash—is one example of the company wanting to take the lead social issues, even potentially thorny ones. Sharing uplifting stories aligns with Starbucks’ goal of making communities better (or at least cultivating that perception) through dialogue. And Starbucks may sincerely feel it’s filling a journalistic gap by focusing on human interest stories that traditional media aren’t covering.

“This is not through the lens of trying to sell more coffee,” CEO Schultz told Business Insider. “This is about the human spirit and what we think is so important to the country.”

Consumers can’t help but ask: is this content simply a marketing campaign in disguise? After all, Starbucks clearly benefits from creating emotional content that helps people associate the brand with positive values. Call it the Humans of New York effect: when Starbucks tells personal stories, it warms people’s hearts and may even keep them coming back for more.

Regardless of whether it’s actually marketing or not, the trick for Starbucks with Upstanders (as it is for other brands’ campaigns) is trying to keep the content authentic. By distancing itself from the more advertorial components of the series, perhaps Starbucks is hoping to convince people that yes, brands can tell great stories for the sake of telling great stories—the marketing piece is just a side benefit.

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Krystal Overmyer is a freelance journalist specializing in digital marketing trends. Her experience spans over a decade in journalism, public relations, and digital communications.

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