Starbucks' Honesty on Blonde Roast Brews Up a Model Campaign

Plenty of Consumers Dislike the Usual Strong Flavors -- and Ads Said So

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Starbucks' recently completed ad campaign for its Blonde Roast coffee will win no creative awards. It wasn't particularly surprising or funny, so nobody will highlight it at an industry event. Agencies won't use it as a prompt to get their clients to copy it. This is too bad, because it sold a helluva lot of coffee and, I predict, did wonders for the company's brand integrity and value.

Though its Blonde blends have been around for over a year, the esoterics of branding rules had kept it from calling the stuff "light," which would have made it the obvious alternative to Starbucks' "medium" and "dark" offerings. It turns out that something north of 40% of American coffee drinkers don't like Starbucks' bold flavors (yours truly included). But the original marketing hadn't made the lighter choice obvious to them. I don't remember how the company promoted it, which is probably a good indication of its efficacy.

So Starbucks took a different approach for the second go-around. District managers were asked to canvass employees (called "partners") to gather and tell real-life stories of friends and family who'd converted to Starbucks after having tried a lighter flavor. They found a lot of them. Better yet, the stories were filled with lots of real-world details and a biggie realization that I can't imagine the creative brief solicited: Almost anyone who liked the Blonde blends disliked Starbucks' other flavors. It's not that they weren't aware of the offering. They just didn't like the stuff they thought Starbucks sold.

Thankfully, this insight wasn't diluted in the development process, and the "Converts Wanted" campaign was born. Real partners were put in TV spots telling their stories in straightforward ways -- parents discovering that they didn't need to load their cups with lots of cream and sugar, or friends who'd felt Starbucks tasted too "bold" or "strong." A partner in one spot says in no uncertain terms, "If you don't like that dark roast, we've created a coffee for you."

The ads relied heavily on a invitation to taste the lighter brew, as if to say that folks should give Starbucks another try. Vouchers for free cups were handed out to Facebook friends and sampling was conducted in six key markets. Though the company won't disclose retail-store sales, its pre-packaged sales of Blonde Roast in groceries and other stores are up 30% over the past eight weeks.

This is smart marketing on so many levels. It embodies elements of truth-telling that should be behind every campaign. It acknowledges the elephant in the room (strong taste) and addresses it directly with a solution (lighter taste). It makes no promises or attempts to attach emotional vagaries to the brand, but instead simply asks consumers to try it -- and then makes it easier for them to do so. The ad execution puts the punchline at the front of the spots, not obscured by some creative conceit or buried until the last second. The speakers aren't photogenic in a central-casting sort of way, but seem real and sincere. Their stories come across as just clunky enough to sound as they were originally told.

There was some internal concern that the self-depreciating approach was too, er, bold, but the company tells me that by the time the "Converts Wanted" tagline was floated, it didn't raise one question. Ditto for the first-ever decision to use actual partners to speak for the company, in their own words. Starbucks was so emboldened by the approach that it even changed its "siren" icon to yellow during the campaign (another first, I believe). Clearly, the company discovered something that it was willing to stand behind.

This says something important to everyone -- whether reaffirming existing customers' commitment to a taste so bold that it must be tempered for we of weaker fortitudes or inviting new customers into the fold. It speaks truth, which says something about the Starbucks brand. Not a truth that is finely-sliced, applicable in certain circumstances or only resident in the hearts of believers. Just truth that respects consumers enough to empower them to make reasoned decisions.

As I said, the campaign won't win any creative awards. But it earned new customers for Starbucks, as it reminded existing ones why they love the brand... while it sold a lot of coffee. The company deserves credit for taking such a truthful approach, and other brands would be smart to copy it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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