Stanley Hainsworth On The Spot

Head of global creative for Starbucks, Stanley Hainsworth, who oversees a department of 90 staffers, says the most important part of his job is to blend the company’s equity in coffee expertise with its mission of making human connections. The Brigham Young University graduate and native of Murray, Ky., left the South to dabble in the arts as an actor and as a subway troubadour in New York (he has also competed in bike road races and marathons). Hainsworth, 49, worked for Nike and Lego before joining Starbucks in 2004, where recent work included holiday “cheer” cards. Q: How would you characterize Starbucks as an advertiser?

A: We look for ways to create the one-on-one connection with our customers. A good example of that is our “cheer” pass-along card. It was actually an idea from one of our customers at a drive-thru in California. We made the wrong drink, so gave him a complimentary one and he thought [that was so nice] he wanted to buy a drink for the person behind him. That happened for seven cars until they ran out of cars. We took that idea and created cheer passes. We hand them out every promotional period and they say if you’re as inspired as we are by that man, please do something nice. We have stories where people will buy the drinks for 10 people behind them. For the holiday, the passes said [things like] spread a little cheer of your own—hold the elevator door for your boss, make peanut brittle for your neighbor.

You have described your role at Starbucks as being the “brand conscience.” What kind of brand “breaches” have you seen?

The first Doubleshot TV spot we did, two years ago, was called “Glenn.” [It featured a young office worker and members of the ’80s group Survivor singing lyrics rewritten to “Eye of the Tiger.”] It was very catchy and did a great job in driving product sales, but in retrospect, as we move toward more brand-appropriate advertising, we think we could do a better job of hitting the sweet spot of the brand—coffee expertise and human connection.

Have you presented ideas that have been rejected or had to be rethought?

Sometimes you’re hit with the reality of being inside a big corporation and having to kind of level things out to please everyone. One of the first things I presented to [CEO] Howard Schultz was the redesign of the whole bean packaging, and it was dark green with a geographic flavor [i.e., maps]. He asked me if it was something I’d be proud of 10 years from now. I said no. He said, “Everything that you do here, I want you to make it transformative.” That was permission to do what I thought I’d been hired to do.

What did you come back with? And did it have to be tested again?

Color coding that speaks to what region the coffee comes from—much brighter. And no, it didn’t. We try to find a balance between consumer insights and testing and all that, and going with your gut. As Howard Schultz says, if I would have asked someone if I should charge $3 for a cup of coffee, they would have said, “You’re crazy.” So we’re trying to find a balance, especially as we start to work with more partners like Kraft and Pepsi, who do do a lot of testing.

What was the biggest change you encountered when you joined Starbucks?

The collaborative nature of the environment.

[Nike and Lego have meetings] and say, “This is what we’re going to do.” At Starbucks, it’s “Let’s bring in a couple of colleagues, see what they think before we make this decision.”

You started out as an actor. You were in My Private Idaho. How did you switch careers?

Thankfully, for most people, I was actually cut out of the final [edit]. But I did a lot of movies and TV shows and stage work. [But then my wife and I] actually inherited a few children. Their mother died in a car accident and it was my wife’s niece and nephew. They were living in Portland, Ore., and I was living in New York … and we went to Portland and decided to stay there. I did some freelance work for Nike and they offered me a job. This was 1990.

Who has influenced you most creatively?

I admire people like [Philippe] Starck who have a creative vision and then they touch a lot of areas.

What work are you most proud of?

At Starbucks I’m most proud of the way that in the last few years we’ve been able to create a family look for the brand. For me, the biggest challenge is creating something that has identity but is not identical.

What’s the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately?

The YouTube environment is one of the coolest things to happen in a long time, but it can get exploited by corporations and lose its cool quickly.

How do you get past a creative block?

I bring in a factor that would be nonsensical on the surface. For instance, if I’m stuck, it’s like, OK, put opera into it. Picking something out of the blue forces me to either run from it or use it in some way.

What’s the last book you read?

I read A Confederacy of Dunces every 18 months. I just finished it again. I think it’s a blueprint for my life.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Distinctive, creative and optimistic. And iconic, which is how people describe the way I look. [What hair I have] stands straight up. It’s not, “Who’s Stanley?” “You know him, the bald guy.” It’s, “He’s the guy with the—” and they put their fingers over their head as if their hair is standing up.