Chappell Ellison | Essays

Story Time With Starbucks

Starbucks holiday coffee cozy. Photos: Chappell Ellison.

After sixty years of post-war consumerism, you’d think retailers would run out of ideas for propagating the gift giving frenzy that begins after Thanksgiving. I’m not trying to be a Scrooge — the combination of hot chocolate, twinkle lights and Christmas music is a guilty pleasure. Yet every holiday season, companies attempt to reinvent their image because they know nostalgia is on their side.

Perhaps the greatest source of my bewilderment comes from Starbucks, whose holiday advertising campaign hinges on the return of their holiday cups. Every year, their white cup transforms into a holiday panorama of penguins, polar bears, or whatever wintery icon is popular that season — a phenomenon that excites several of my friends to the point of actually bringing it up in conversation. “I can’t believe holiday cups are back,” one of my friends said to me over the phone recently. It was the first time I had heard someone measure their life by Starbucks cups.

This year’s Starbucks campaign is more suspect than usual. “Stories are gifts — share,” snakes across the cardboard coffee cozies. “Share a cup, share a story,” proclaim the banners hanging in the store windows. While the act of storytelling and coffee is a logical connection, it hardly seems fair for Starbucks to co-opt such an intimate bond.

This offense might have gone unnoticed if several other large corporations weren’t abusing the art of storytelling. I recently spotted a Whole Foods bag, printed with images of snowflakes, red ribbons and the phrase, “Every meal has a story.” And here I was thinking that writers were purveyors of stories, not coffee chains or organic grocery stores. So this holiday season, just take a deep breath and remind yourself that you aren’t buying a white peppermint mocha latte or a $15 box of organic quinoa — you’re purchasing stories to be shared.

Posted in: Business

Comments [12]

But there are more questions to be explored here - are these companies delivering a story through their product or experience, the way, say, a Disneyland might? Or are they offering themselves up as conduits, as opportunities for their customers to share stories? The "story" element, besides a term appearing in the copy, is slight here, at best, and seems to akin to greenwashing, bringing in the emotionally resonant buzzwords and affixing them to your brand (n the case of Starbucks, literally) without offering any specific value. I'd love to see some counterexamples (I am sure a quick browse on Springwise would produce any number of them) where companies are doing something off- or online to enable stories to be created, shared, experienced, etc.
Steve Portigal

Steve, I love that you linked this use of storytelling to the process of greenwashing. That's certainly what I was getting at. But you're right, there are some other companies that are using this idea of storytelling in an appropriate manner. For example, Etsy is using the phrase, "Every gift has a story," a tagline that makes sense for a company that is attempting to connect local artisans to buyers with custom needs. However, Etsy is being very subtle about this, whereas Starbucks is pushing it a little too hard. It comes off a little shallow.

I have nothing intelligent to offer to this conversation, since I'm in the middle of a project for school and keep getting distracted by snippets of this and that....

But this blog post is funny to me because last night I noticed a classmates Dunkin Donuts cup that was bedecked with snowflakes, and thought to myself how cool it would be to have one snowfall this year in which the flakes were neon pink and orange. :)


I have to be honest-- I do think you are coming off a bit Scrooge-like here. Starbucks may be being a tad presumptuous, but the stories campaign is in keeping with other efforts by the coffee chain in evolving their version of the "Third Space" concept in retail. Lots of people spend hours at a time in their local Starbucks-- reading, working on laptops, meeting with friends; customers have been consuming and sharing stories in coffee houses since the invention of coffee, so it makes sense that Sbux would leverage that in their experience design. What's interesting is that instead of discouraging what other retail businesses might call loitering, Starbucks have recently added perks to hanging around: their AT&T-provided Wi-Fi is now free, and their new Starbucks Digital Network portal features a book club social network. An interesting business model for the gig economy.
Marco Siegel-Acevedo

While I appreciate your observation, I think you're being a bit cynical here. Starbucks is doing what any successful marketing strategy does: communicate benefits of the product you're selling. For Starbucks, those benefits include warming up and spending time with someone special (why else would there be couches all over their stores?). And emotions are the most important part of marketing; without that emotional element, they'd be writing "YOU ARE DRINKING COFFEE" on the side of their cups.
Plus, since when did storytelling become an exclusive right to artists? We all do it everyday.

This is something that I've noticed increasingly more as I work with clients on campaigns. There's this move away from simply stating the benefit of how delicious,easy,simple, etc. their product is towards the emotional benefit of the product. How does my restaurant spark conversation? How can a cup of coffee create a good mood. The most obvious example I can quote is the new work for Pizza Hut where it is stated that they don't simply serve a pizza, they serve togetherness. It's definitely a tactic that is being used heavily by marketers right now and I'm sure will fizzle out at some point when schmaltz gets obnoxious. But for coffee, it seems like a natural fit. There are only so many ways to package a caffeine-based product to people. It's either 1) energy 2 )a way to start your day 3) warm, fuzzy feelings or 4) a delicacy you can partake in often. I could be leaving out a few but during the holidays, it makes a lot of sense to appeal to that warm, fuzzy feeling and ride on that wave of holiday cheer. For good or for bad.

Yes, Doug, that's what I find most intriguing is that this seems like a general shift. Starbucks can no long talk directly about their coffee, but they can talk about the moments created by their coffee. Pizza Hut can't keep talking about their toppings, but they can talk about how they bring families together over pizza.

Melody, good points. No one owns storytelling. I'm just surprised to see so many companies using it in their slogans this year. It's definitely playing into our emotions, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just something to be conscious of.
Chappell Ellison

Also, story as the proposition rather than the strategy. Narrative or dialogue is a long acknowledged method of customer engagement, but it seems like these guys only just woke up to that and have hit it a little too explicitly in an attempt to get into that particular space. "Hey, wait for us! We're about the story too. See? "Story, story story. STORY!!"

Conceptually, there is a link between coffee and conversation, aka stories. Starbucks' sofas and chairs do make for a comfy zone easily found, almost everywhere. And I do really like the cozy, handsome typography and design on the cup sleeves. But there is a falsity to Starbucks' home-spun image. This has been most evident to me in the small city where I live. We have a chain of local cafes/coffee roasters with a grand total of 3 locations. Their coffee is vastly superior to Starbucks' brews, their spaces are comfortable, and yes they have free wi-fi. Guess where Starbucks built their outlets in our town? Yep, right across the street from our local roaster. So many travelers and college students from out of town will head like moths to the light of the familiar, leaving the regional business with far fewer customers. It cannot be a coincidence. There is every impression that StarBUCKS is striving to drive out the little guy.

So, if you're ever in Syracuse or Fayetteville NY, do check out Freedom of Espresso.

Perhaps tellingly, the signs facing each way on the Starbucks at 85th and 1st in NYC are not cooperating. As they light up, the 85th Street side says "STAR," and the 1st Avenue side says "BUCKS."
Scott Birdsall

Perhaps it's not the idea but the rather crass execution that is at fault? Packaging is a blunt instrument, which means it struggles to "tell stories" (as opposed to sell, and flag up a headline).
But could the medium tell stories better. I have been wondering if our own packaging agency (jkr) is missing a trick here for a couple of weeks, and you can see my own musings here:



but the idea of using packs to offer little fragments of a bigger story seems like a good idea - just not one to be confused with putting a glib sentiment on the pack, as Starbucks have done.
silas amos

I wonder if they'll keep the holiday cups after they've become an HJ parlour.


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