Post by Team Tane

If you consume marketing newsletters, PR ‘zines, or coffee with any sort of regularity, you’re probably aware that Starbucks has made its first foray into the world of original branded content with Upstanders. The series consists of ten episodes. Each is four and a half to six minutes long and features a story about an upstanding citizen. The executive producer of the series is none other than Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz.  Senior Vice President Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who is also executive producer of Starbucks’ social impact media initiatives, not only produces but pens the vast majority of the series.

There are a number of clever strategic decisions to Upstanders that jumped out at me even before watching the first episode. Each segment is available in three formats–written, podcast, and video. Including the podcast format is notable because it reinforces recent reports touting the resurgence in power and popularity of the podcast. Starbucks opted to tell social impact stories in a documentary style, which is less adventurous than other companies venturing into the world of original content, but it’s a strategic choice that’s on point for Starbucks as a brand.

In addition to the ten episodes, there is a “Take Action” link on the Upstanders website where people are encouraged to nominate other upstanding citizens, register to vote on upstanders, and use Fotition to post photos of themselves in order to “join a movement of people determined to make positive change”. It’s a very well-rounded campaign with a great message. They also made the laudable decision to avoid using a lot of product placement in the series (though I did see a Starbucks cup strapped to a wheelchair in one episode), recognizing that the publicity likely to be generated from this series is much more valuable than the flash of a logo.

Upstanders isn’t cutting edge. It doesn’t forge untrodden territory nor is there anything particularly noteworthy about the shooting or editing. However, these artistic choices perfectly suit the subject matter and reiterate the power of good old-fashioned storytelling. I challenge you to watch all ten of these episodes without having a tear well up in your eye.

Branded programming is the fad of the moment or potentially the wave of the future. Though many pitch it as a newfangled, out-of-the-box approach to marketing, I see it as somewhat of a return to the old radio show model of funded programming. Regardless of whether you view it as the hot new thing or “everything old is new again”, as a creative, it’s something to be excited about. While the convention of figuring out how to tell a meaningful story in a few seconds or a couple of minutes can be compelling and effective, the opportunity to tell a well-thought-out story in a series or long-form video is very exciting, and the fact that more and more brands are getting brave enough to explore this new terrain is remarkably encouraging.