Monday, March 23, 2015

Social Branding 101

Starbucks took it on the chin in its latest attempt to attach a social statement to its cafe lattes.  I suppose Howard Schultz had the best intentions in mind, but let's face it this was nothing more than a coffee promo meant to garner media attention, which it did.  However, Schultz isn't the only one to blame.  Plenty of other companies use social messages to boost sales.  In fact, studies show consumers favor this form of advertising to conventional methods.

American Apparel is probably the most racy in doing so with its anti-airbrushing campaigns and "normal" models designed to make their clothes feel real, but it too started feeling the heat and the new CEO vows to "clean up" the company, which saw many of its ads banned due to their explicit sexual nature.

Schultz would never go that far, which is why he was no doubt flabbergasted his "race together" theme received such adverse reaction.  It was the timing more than anything else that turned critics off, as it seemed he was trying to capitalize on the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri.  To be honest, I had no idea what this ad campaign was about.  I thought Starbucks was promoting running to get people in shape after indulging in latte grandes and cranberry-orange scones.  I didn't know Schultz was actually trying to promote racial tolerance.

These kinds of "white bread" social messages have always rung hollow.  I remember the Ben & Jerry's Peace Pops from a few years back with two percent of sales going to world peace.  You already paid twice what you would normally pay for a popsicle, and here they were giving a whopping two cents on the dollar to promote peace around the world.

Nike tried to cash in on the Beatles' Revolution, and Mercedes Benz actually used Janis Joplin's classic song at one time to promote its cars, both of which met with harsh criticism.  However, this doesn't deter the advertising industry, which has long tried to give social relevance to the products it peddles.

The worst thing about Starbucks is how it has completely overtaken the country and now can be found in many of the coffee capitals of Europe, including Vienna, where coffee was first introduced to a Western audience quite by accident.  It is pretty tough to compete with this kind of branding, although the "democratic" nature of these casual bistros has resulted in a number of copycat brands worldwide.

The coffee house first came to the American colonies in the 17th century.  It was hugely popular in London and was an active place to catch up on news, as papers weren't generally delivered to your home.  I'm sure there were many political ideas that were roughed out over a cup of joe, but I don't think any revolutions started in the coffee house.

Schultz sees his coffee houses as social gathering places -- sharing ideas, music and what have you over a cafe latte.  You can choose to go alone if you like, plugging your laptop into an electrical outlet and catching up on events or quietly swaying to Youtube videos.  All well in good, but don't try to make anything more out of it than there actually is.

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