Starbucks Moves Into “Content Creation” With Digital Series

NEW YORK (AP) — Starbucks is venturing into the world of “content creation” with stories it says will help balance the “cynicism” fueling media coverage of the presidential election.

The coffee chain, known for chiming in on social issues, says it’s aiming for the quality level of The Washington Post and The New York Times with its stories about inspiring Americans, such as a former NFL player who helps disabled veterans.

Starbucks says it will promote the “Upstanders” series of text, video and podcasts in stores and on its mobile app over the next 10 weeks. CEO Howard Schultz said the app, which accounts for 25 percent of Starbucks transactions, is a “treasure trove” that can give content considerable exposure.

Schultz said in an interview that retailers need to evolve to be more “experiential,” and he believes Starbucks will continue to pursue original content.

Moving into original content could give Starbucks more control in casting itself as a positive force on social issues. Last year, for instance, it had employees write “Race Together” on cups in the wake of protests over police killings of black men. The move was criticized as opportunistic and inappropriate coming from a company better known for pricey lattes, but such efforts have nevertheless fostered Starbucks’ liberal image.

Schultz gave a strong endorsement to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, citing on CNN the “vitriolic display of bigotry and hate” on the “other side.” He also didn’t rule out running for office himself at some point.

Many companies have been trying to bypass news outlets and become a direct source of information about themselves, sometimes hiring “brand journalists” to create such stories. Coca-Cola runs a “Coca-Cola Journey” website, for instance, and Chipotle gained praise for its animated videos depicting itself as a more wholesome alternative to traditional fast food.

Schultz said the Upstanders series is not branded content or marketing because it’s not about Starbucks. But the push is nevertheless a way for the company to try and connect directly with customers.

The challenge is that there’s so much content available online that it’s difficult for anyone to get noticed, said Allan Adamson, founder of the Brand Simple consulting firm. He also noted that marketers have to walk a fine line when commenting on social issues, so that they don’t risk losing customers.

“If you take a stand on almost any issue today, half the room will be applauding you and half the room will be booing you,” Adamson said.

Still, Adamson said creating content is a way for companies to try to reach fragmenting audiences that are harder to target through network TV or major publications. And the Upstanders series is meant to be uplifting, without making controversial political statements.

Schultz said Starbucks had been “offered lots of money from other media companies” to feature their content on the company’s app, citing movie trailers as an example. The company said a previously announced deal to feature select New York Times stories on its app is still in the works.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a Starbucks public affairs executive and a former Washington Post correspondent, said the world of “content creation” is being transformed by new entrants, and that he applied the same standards to the Upstanders series that he would have while he was a reporter.

“We’re really trying to create the sort of stories that would stand on their own on the Washington Post and New York Times website,” he said.

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AP Technology Writer Mae Anderson contributed to this report.

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Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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