Starbucks has been racking up accolades in the digital and social media space. As of July 23, the coffee chain surpassed Coca-Cola as the most popular brand on Facebook, with more than 3.6 million fans, per InsideFacebook.com, an independent blog that tracks the social networking site’s developments. It was also named the No. 1 “most engaged brand” in a report published by Altimeter Group last month. These recent feats are the result of Starbucks’ aggressive digital and social media strategy, said Starbucks digital strategy director Alexandra Wheeler in an interview with Brandweek. That’s because Starbucks has moved from “experimenting” to actively incorporating and utilizing social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, in its brand marketing plans. Wheeler discussed how recent social media initiatives—like “Free Pastry Day”—are delivering real ROI for the brand, and how digital will play an active role in the fall nationwide launch of Via instant coffee. Excerpts from that conversation are below.
Brandweek: Starbucks has been getting quite active on the social media front lately. How is the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media initiatives changing the Starbucks-consumer relationship and how would you describe that progression?
Alexandra Wheeler: What I would say about social media and online communities as it relates to the Starbucks brand is that for us, the journey really began with the launch of My Starbucks Idea last March, an online community where our customers and partners—as we like to call our employees—can go online and submit their ideas, vote for other people’s ideas or add to ideas in the community. They can also see what Starbucks is doing with those ideas through our “Ideas in Action” blog. It’s a pretty robust community. It has over 75,000 ideas in it. In its first year, we activated 25 ideas through that program. It’s a significant way to co-create through that program, to inform business decisions that were underway or forming. [For instance,] we wouldn’t have had music in our stores if it wasn’t for our partner here, Timothy Jones, or [so many different] different creations of our beverages, to take what’s happening in store and bring that online. It’s a natural extension of the brand through that experiment, and through our success with that, we started to expand beyond that. It was important for us to go where consumers are and to provide a valuable and meaningful brand experience.
BW: What’s your philosophy/approach to using social media?
AW: One of the [key priorities] we have to think about when it comes to social media and our expertise there is we have to connect in ways that are relevant to those environments as well as to our consumers. One of the most powerful ways is by sharing content. [CEO Howard Schultz’s] recent trip to Rwanda is a really great example of how a brand like Starbucks is differentiating. [Schultz met with coffee farmers during the trip, while raising awareness for AIDS research.] We care deeply about our coffee origins, we are having an impact in that community and we are sourcing the best quality coffee. [Social media platforms like] Facebook and Twitter allow us to tell and show that story, make it transparent and add texture that we didn’t have through other media and to share it with a much broader audience. That’s a story unique to us and only Starbucks can tell.
BW: Earlier this month, Starbucks became the most popular brand on Facebook, with more than 3.6 million fans. What does this mean to you and how much of it can you directly attribute to the company’s aggressive push towards social media campaigns in recent months?
AW: We’re thrilled. It’s a huge honor to be the most popular brand on Facebook. We now have 3.7 million fans. We love every single one of them. We think it’s amazing and we are really humbled by that. It acknowledges that others have taken note. It has been attributed many times. Yes, it’s great and we’re really proud of that. It absolutely is intentional. When we entered Facebook, there was certainly a community rallied around our brand that was very small. Our brand is just that relevant and part of people’s lives…, but how do we nurture, grow and build that and do it in a way that is a balance between providing relevant and meaningful content, experience and offers to those communities so that their connection with the brand is really adding value to Facebook or Twitter? …[Because at the end of the day,] a brand can promote the heck out of themselves on Facebook and still not build a [strong] following if they don’t have anything behind that and only nurture and care about it as marketing, but not as relationships. We’re developing and fostering those relationships to ensure that we’re entering this space in the right way.
BW: What are consumers talking about these days when it comes to Starbucks? What kinds of brand conversations are you seeing on Facebook and Twitter?
AW: With Twitter it’s customer service or Q&A oriented. It can be answering very basic questions about our card or loyalty program or coffee in stores, but we also have a lot of fun in that community…On Facebook, there is a large volume of conversation on people’s favorite beverages. It’s interesting to see how passionate people are about sharing their favorite beverage or [Starbucks] rituals. We did a poll: “How complicated is your drink order? Is it short and sweet? Is it five to seven [minutes?] [Or, are you the type of customer] that says, ‘I have needs!’” People love that and are engaged in that. The conversations can span from people talking about Starbucks rituals or the values and the things the brand stands for, our partnership with Product (Red) [for AIDS awareness], the trip to Rwanda, the impact we have at coffee origins and sourcing the best coffee and doing it in a way that also speaks to our LEED certification and environmental and sustainability impact. The conversation is representative of all the different aspects of our brand.
BW: How are you taking this online chatter and actually translating it to ROI for the brand? What do you look for?
AW: It’s the billion-dollar question. We made a lot of progress in this area. We certainly look at a few key things. Brands love emotional connections and human connections are one of the biggest entry points we have as we aggressively experiment our way in this space and start to mature that experimentation…Another one is translation and understanding whether these communications add value to the bottom line and the business and we believe they do. The most recent example is we really used all of our digital channels to promote Free Pastry Day. [Held July 21, the effort rewarded consumers who purchased a beverage with a free pastry.] [In using digital], the momentum [really] picked up in getting out the word, as we were [gearing up for] Free Pastry Day and in fueling redemption in our stores and seeing new faces in our store who go to try and taste our great food on that single day. That was a digital and PR effort we would say is widely successful.
Another way is really informing, listening to the conversation and engaging in it in a way that makes sense of what people’s perceptions are around certain things. Via is a good example. We were actively listening and participating in conversations around Via and helping to get samples or product in people’s hands so they can try this amazing product and looking at what kinds of product and brand experiences do we need to provide so they can get over that first feeling of, “Oh, instant coffee. Gross! I would never drink it.” [What we said instead was,] “Hey, you gotta try it. It’s not what you think.” [Social media played] a big part in the lead market [test] launch earlier this year, and it will continue to play a significant role in the fall [launch of Via.]
BW: Did you ever have an incident where social media actually backfired? What are some of the best and worst case scenarios you’ve experienced using social media?
AW: There isn’t any incident where we would consider social media backfiring. As far as best case, I would say there are two: World AIDS Day. Last holiday, as part of our multi-year partnership with Product (Red), we ran a campaign for an in-store event, predominantly on Facebook, but in other digital channels and traditional media and PR as well. For any beverage consumers purchased, five cents went to the (Red) cause. It was a way for us to build significant awareness and connect with people around a shared ideal and do something that just felt really great.
We set a record with that campaign—the most viral impressions ever. Not just what we paid to get awareness, but the viral pass-along of our campaign. We actually just broke that record, we broke our own record with Free Pastry Day.
BW: Any numbers you can provide?
AW: For (Red), we had nearly a million people RSVP for the event—either “yes” or “maybe.” For Free Pastry Day, we were on the order of nearly 600,000 consumers doing the same. The record we broke was around the viral pass along which was the power of that channel. Facebook has been really great about it. They are thrilled with the success. They have lots of other brands. [Our success has them now asking,] “How can we even do this? How can we repeat the success for them?” It speaks to the power of the Starbucks brand and how well it connects with our consumer in this space.
BW: What are we likely to see from Starbucks on the social media front going forward?
AW: You will see more of the same. We will only continue to grow and develop our assets in the social media space, but continue this kind of real philosophy of being where the people are but being relevant to them and providing value in those experiences. We don’t want to check the boxes and say we are in all the different channels. It’s not the right thing to do. It’s one of the reasons we were cited in the [Altimeter Group] report as the most engaging brand…It isn’t a marketing initiative. It isn’t a PR initiative. It’s cultivating and creating great consumer value and great consumer relationships. What you’ll see from Starbucks is us continuing to build and scale that up over time in a new way and new chances to converse with the brand.