Coming Together Over Free Coffee: A Starbucks Political Statement and Marketing Magic



The U.S. political environment is pretty bound up these days with the debt ceiling crisis and government shutdowns, etc.  All the CNN and MSNBC addicts among my readers (I imagine quite a few) are likely well aware.  If you look to your Facebook and Twitter feeds you will likely see lots of griping and general dissatisfaction with the inability of our government to be able to work together as a team to solve our financial problems in an effective manner.

How do you get politicians to play nice?  If you watch political dramas on TV (aside from the aforementioned “non fiction” news channels)  like House Of Cards on Netflix then it might seem counter-intuitive and darn near impossible.  But Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz would like to think that we can all get along and encourage collaboration – ease the bind in our governments bowels by lubricating the works with a steaming hot cup of coffee!  In that spirit, there is lots of “free marketing buzz” around the  Starbucks free brewed coffee promotion  being activated this week at Starbuck’s nationwide.

The concept:  today through Friday if you buy a cup of coffee for a friend or coworker you get one free.   The political message Starbucks is serving up:  let citizens lead by example by demonstrating a spirit of generosity, togetherness and collaboration.   Obviously more of a marketing ploy to tap in to the political sensibility of those first-worlders with enough taxable income to be concerned about the debt crisis (and spend several dollars a day on coffee) than an effective political activism tactic – but it leverages a warm fuzzy social fact that connects well with the brand – the idea of coffee as a social lubricant in America.

I applaud Starbucks for being so intuitive with their brand strategy in that regard.   Just like tea in Great Britain (and Asia for that matter), cigarettes in China (among only-child teens and twenty-somethings  who seek to make friends by sharing smokes) and other forms of social bonding over consumables – Coffee in the US represents the spirit of community.  It’s why Starbucks was able to so successfully launch a “third space” coffee house chain whereby people can find another place to be and hangout over hat’s not their office or a bar but still offers a stimulating incentive to get together.  The coffee house trend became popular during the Beat era in the US and saw a resurgence during the 90′s.   This was reflected in popular culture with TV shows like Friends  where the cast of New Yorker characters would regularly meet at the “Central Perk” coffee house to catch up and bond over life’s big and little situations.  :)

It’s a far cry to think that congress can solve the world’s problems by integrating some slow-drinking caffeine and cozy couches into their collaboration process. Methinks a bottle of Jack Daniels would go a little further, but I digress.

In any case – this narcissistic anthropologist can appreciate some good strategy – albeit a bit transparent – when she sees it.  I raise my cup of Joe to the marketers who can find ways to make political statements while also making money.


The Future of a Global, Mobile Internet: Context Is Everything to Emerging Communications and Tech Brands

I have been receiving emails for a few weeks now from asking me to look at their infographics for potential sharing on my blog. In this case, the relentless communication has paid off.

I thought this particular graphic, rife with statistics (some dated, and some perhaps questionable, but still thought-provoking) was interesting. I have a friend who is currently working in the telecommunication’s field, doing ethnographic projects exploring emerging markets in Latin America and Africa.

I think it will be interesting to dig deep into the context of interpersonal communication and the role of the internet / mobile internet in socialization, education, business and other aspects of life. The numbers promise the potential of some great deep culture / surface culture stories that could lead to the development of some very meaningful brands if those companies make a point (like the one my friend is working for) to listen.

That success will come from empathy for context.  And empathy starts, however, with an awareness of cultural relativism: the idea that one’s assumptions about behavior and cultural norms based on one’s  own cultural experience are not necessarily true in other cultures.  I think the numbers only tell one part of the story:  the opportunity.  Many corporations make the mistake of seeing a number and  translating it into dollar figures as an opportunity for business growth but not going deep enough into the human side of the opportunity.    I’m excited that my friend is working for a company that makes a point to examine that opportunity.  In this industry, especially – the impact of human understanding can be enormous: not just from a business perspective for his employer, but to the degree to which that company can deliver products and services that truly enhance the lives of their customers.

An interesting time we live in.  So, let t he numbers inspire some thought.  I’m interested in what some of my readers in the regions mentioned here feel are points of context that telecommunications providers should consider in developing their products and services.


What gets in the way of you loving the work you do?

Really enjoyed this perspective on both work and brand strategy.

What gets in the way of you loving the work you do?.

In Levi’s We Trust

I contributed the following article  The Marketing Blog  which was published today.  All about how a brand maintains relevance through heritage.

Most treasured item of clothing? / 140 years of Levi Strauss & Co


In Levis We Trust

A Heritage Brand Sustains Over a Century of Category Leadership


If you are like a lot of people whose most treasured item of clothing is their favourite pair of jeans, you might not know that the origin of denim comes from the sturdy French fabric created in Nimes, France (serge de Nimes, shortened to “denim” in the late 1800s).

This article is by Jamie Gordon, Vice President, Consumer Anthropology at Northstar Research Partners.  Northstar is a leading global full-service market research and consulting firm. Jamie is a brand strategy and strategic research specialist, digging deep into the context of consumerism to find new ways to drive brand growth.

As far as most of the jeans-wearing public are concerned, this wardrobe staple came from the genius of a man called Levi Strauss, who founded the first company to manufacture blue jeans in San Francisco, California in 1853.

140 years later, Levi Strauss & Co remains one of the most recognisable and popular brands in a category that has since become saturated. Whether you are going by industry data or plain-old “stating the obvious” intuition, there is no refuting that Levi Strauss is the brand at the head of the pack.

The reason? Put simply: heritage.

Levis is one of the few (if not only) brands that has existed since the dawn of industrialisation in America, and that has consistently demonstrated a commitment to authenticity. While they have been adept at reinventing themselves from a product and marketing perspective over the years to be in line with changes in consumer culture, Levi Strauss & Co. has never strayed from their core identity as influenced by the original 501 – “superior quality and fit for all”. Levis’ unparalleled accessibility means that regardless of your demographic realities, or function versus fashion inclinations, if you walk into a shop to buy a pair of jeans, you can be guaranteed to find a pair of Levis that fits your price range and preferences.

What’s also notable is that, as of their 140 year anniversary today (20 May, 2013), they will have remained a stable corporate presence in an ever-changing consumer landscape. You can probably count on one hand the number of global brands that can makes such a claim.

But the timeless tale that keeps Levis firmly affixed to the hearts of the jeans-wearing public harkens back to their American heritage as a product that met a distinct rugged-wearable’s need for the workers of the “wild west” as they literally built America from the ground up. It is this bootstrapping mentality that, no matter how much the economic, sociocultural or consumer landscape has changed, remains a core part of American identity and heritage.

Levis has stayed in touch

The penchant for authenticity and history has only grown over the years as consumers’ culture has shifted to value locally produced goods, and products that offer the benefit of simplicity; Levis has stayed in touch and made a point to connect to these among other evolving needs. For example, they have made a point to return to domestic production for selected lines, and have notably retooled their women’s business (based on extensive research) to offer fits for just about any body shape – something that has transformed the jeans shopping experience from distressing to delightful.

In today’s increasingly competitive consumer landscape, context is everything. Marketers everywhere should celebrate the anniversary of this iconic American brand that has always remained true to the context of their own heritage, while always making a point to stay connected to the context of macro-culture and that of the consumer. It is this commitment to advancing understanding that likely sustain a leadership position for Levis for the next 140 years.

Brands Taking Responsibilty For Inspiring Social Change: Dove’s “Real Beauty” Sketches as a Dialogue-Starter

In today’s consumer culture driven world – especially here in the United States, brands are starting to become a required participant, if not leader, of conversations about social change.   It’ s part of a macro trend related to empowered consumerism and the shifting balance of power between civil society, government and corporations.  Specifically, government is becoming less and less the dominant force behind social change as civil society begins using their economic influence to encourage corporations (who rely on them to sustain their business) to use the power of their global marketing reach to make a difference.

The challenge for corporations (and brands in particular) is finding that social issue or cause that is relevant and credible and participating in a meaningful way.  This has actually become its own industry – but that’s a conversation for another day.

I have observed, in my study of consumer culture, the burden of the backlash for many of these corporations and brands.  On the one hand, you see a lot of big players  who try to do the right thing but then get dinged for “creating the problem” in the first place. It’s a “between a rock and a hard place” situation for many of these brands.  Coca- Cola is one example of a company / brand in the hot seat, which I  blogged about when they launched their campaign to help combat the growing obesity problem.

Today’s example, however, comes from some work I am dong with a global panel of Cultural Creatives.  When asked about brands they have affinity for, one participant in the dialogue talked about her “love / hate” relationship with the Dove Real Beauty campaign, and their latest Real Beauty Sketches (see below)

The issue is that, while many people find fault with the fact that none of the women are “traditionally” unattractive and they are mostly Caucasian, the work still sparks a conversation – and it’s the social conversation that is most important.  In this case, the dialogue is about how our perceptions of our own physical beauty are often a reflection of unnecessary insecurities put upon us by “others” as a result of media or other “smoke and mirrors” influences – and that these detrimental self perceptions can have a negative impact on how we interact with the world.

So, kudos to Dove and any other brand that takes a risk by starting a controversial conversation, because culture only changes when we test our boundaries encourage people to react.   A little bit of context shift goes a long way.

Culture Trumps Strategy

I was recently interviewed by a gentleman named Francois Gossieaux, co-author of The Hyper-Social Organization and co-founder of C Suite 2.0 

The topic was the role the study of culture plays (or should play) in the business of brand strategy.

Here is a “taste” of the article, but for more, including full text and a link to the full podcast interview, click HERE

My first episode of the Culture Trumps Strategy show with Jamie Gordon, the VP of Anthropology at Northstar, was a great one. Jamie always thought of herself as a participant observer in her own life, which led her to become an anthropologist. She learned the ropes as a consumer anthropologist by working for market research and brand strategy firms.

Jamie uses a framework called the study of context to understand and predict consumer behavior in the marketplace. The study of context consists of understanding what she calls the three C’s, which are the three layers of context that are relevant:

  • Client/Category Context – Understanding what happens to them as an organization and within the product category.
  • Cultural Context – The large macro cultural trends that are going on in the world and that might affect the space being researched. This is also where they also look deep cultural aspects vs. trendy things that might affect the buying behavior.
  • Consumer Context – What influences them in their world, and how do they interact with others in their inner circle.The idea is to find the sweet spot of where those three C’s overlap. This method also dispels the more traditional, but increasingly unrealistic, model where you have companies on the one side that create things and put them out in the marketplace with a target consumer in mind, and the consumer on the other side waiting for the company to produce something. While this model may have existed at some point, it does not lend itself to innovation and evolution.

Companies now need to understand that their customers are human first before they are people who buy and consume things. And as humans we are influenced and constrained by what is going on around us – our cultures. It is that culture which will determine what we buy and how we consume things. And the producers are humans first as well, and while they are in the business of creating trends, they are also consumers. So these days products are the result of a cyclical dialog among humans – both from the consumer side and from the producer side. It is this rich dialog that allows for innovation to happen.

The Narcissistic Anthropologist


One of my favorite subscriptions is to a magazine called the Intelligent Optimist (formerly known as Ode)

What I love about this publication is how they connect social context to social consciousness and speak to people who are business leaders as well as overall conscientious human beings in a way that empowers us to take responsibility for change.

I subscribe to their newsletter and received this in an email this morning.  I am inclined to share as I know my readers would appreciate the forward-thinking perspective:

Recently at a remote beach in Mexico I was looking at the most beautiful stars filled night sky. The darkness was perfect and there were more stars than I had ever seen. Looking at the stars always overwhelms me. I know the theory of the Big Bang that tells me that the universe has been expanding ever since that first explosion billions of…

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