The Charm Offensive

The trouble with writing about a visionary company like Starbucks is that I have to start by going all macro here, beginning with that bitch goddess capitalism and her bastard son, Wall Street, and the fact that within this economic family, nothing is ever enough. (Woody Allen made the same comparison about relationships, i.e., they are like sharks, and have to keep moving ahead, or die.)

On the heels of a very good fourth quarter for the brand—a 19 percent net increase in earnings compared to a year ago—the Street was not happy, because although same-store sales rose, traffic was down 1 percent (the first decrease for Starbucks since going public in 1992). Thus, the share price is dropping.

And now here’s the problem with a strong chairman like Howard Schultz. As with all committed brand leaders, he’s given to major pronouncements, which tend to bolster the troops and the Street. We all know the brand drill: Uniquely, Starbucks does not need traditional advertising; rather, every store, barista, cozy velvet chair, iced grande soy chai latte, napkin and stirrer, in short, every tiny part of the whole experience is cohesive and consistent and itself stands as a brand advertisement. In his book Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz puts it this way: “In this ever-changing society, the most powerful and enduring brands are built from the heart. Their foundations are stronger because they are built with the strength of the human spirit, not an ad campaign.”

There are inherent contradictions to this killer-Zen brand approach. Here’s a multi-billion-dollar zealously anti-corporate corporation building an empire one personalized drink at a time (while forcing out the neighborhood mom-and-pop shops). So what’s a chairman to do? How about get excited about a 60-something-year-old form of mass-market advertising? Of course, through one of the best spots ever made (“Craig”) Starbucks has advertised its bottled beverage-aisle offerings on TV, but never its retail presence.

But here’s how Schultz spun his reworked ethos during a conference call: “As a national leader, we have an opportunity to make sure our voice is heard in the all-important media [sic] of TV. This is the beginning of a new opportunity for us.”

Wow, not only an opportunity, but the beginning of a new opportunity. Talk about seeing the macchiato as half full. But here’s where the snark ends. Although I’ve only seen one spot (from Wieden + Kennedy) so far, and there will be many more, I’ve got to say it’s pretty damn near perfect.

For starters, it’s simple. We see no overdecorated stores or red-cheeked shoppers; we hear no rousing holiday songs, no words from chairman Schultz, nary a tootle from Sting.

Instead, a sweet, animated alpine scene, “Ski Lift” is abstract, but still warm. It features cool, switched-on music (“I Love NYE,” by Badly Drawn Boy) and even offers a little breather when it comes on, like staring inside a snow globe, or, um, taking a coffee break in a cozy, welcoming café.

Years back, Ralph Lauren was famous for print ads showing the literal version of this powdery scene—aristocratic families dragging their wooden skis up mountains while wearing his $400 sweaters. This, by contrast, shows a Nordic everyman seated on a ski lift, going up, who encounters a descending elk, hooves hovering delicately over his lap. Everything stops for a while—as it sometimes does on ski lifts—and the man decides to pass on a warm cup of Starbucks coffee to the four-legged passenger in the seat across the way. (The cup is red, but the elk’s nose isn’t.) The idea is so stripped down, but what with that anthropomorphized elk, so downright odd and unexpected, that it’s charming. Part of the allure of a Starbucks shop is the smell—and the setting almost palpably suggests the joy of the openair, where everything is sharp and clear. In turn, the elk lifts his iconic cup to toast the generous human, and the spot ends with the tagline, “Pass the cheer” and a shot of the chain’s Holiday Blend beans. (Never mind that Starbucks has practically forced Mr. Coffee into retirement, too.)

The TV spot is one part of the integrated campaign. There’s also radio, featuring baristas telling their own stories. A Web site, itsredagain.com, allows users to create their own pass-the-cheer messages, complete with an avatar (tree, human, bear) and accessories (kisses, soccer balls, etc.). Markers placed all over a globe point to where users have already done so. In the past two weeks, more than 11,000 such “cheer chains” have been created. The Web site graphics echo the snow scene, but also, by showing the Earth from afar, give new meaning to the idea of a “home page.”

Altogether, the campaign feels nurturing and calming. There’s nothing like soothing the savage beast of Wall Street by taking a minute to help an elk to put everything in perspective. I’d give it two hooves up.