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Seattle's Best Plots to Upstage Old Spice

Smell Familiar? Starbucks Unit Taps Facebook, Second City for Real-Time Personalized Improv

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Did you hear the one about Seattle's Best? In one of the more ambitious social-media plays in recent memory, the brand is engaging in improvisational comedy on Facebook with skits custom-tailored for people who "like" it.

To promote its new Levels coffee system, the Starbucks subsidiary is hosting a live 24-hour show dubbed the "Declare Your Level Show" with famed troupe Second City. "We wanted an exciting, big launch," said Michelle Gass, Seattle's Best president, of the company's largest-ever campaign. "The spirit of this brand is to create a disruptive idea that builds emotional connection to the brand. It's not about saying, it's about doing. Why not make it fun with this 24-hour comedy idea?"

Seattle's Best rolls out its 'Declare Your Level' campaign.
Seattle's Best rolls out its 'Declare Your Level' campaign.

Here's how it works: Those who like Seattle's Best on Facebook will be prompted to enter contact information and choose which level of its new coffee line they prefer. Upon declaring a level, users will see a pre-recorded short video from the Second City actors related to the coffee level they choose. They will then be placed in a queue to be part of about 1,000 live sketches expected to be performed during the 24-hour period. User participation will be similar to typical improv-comedy shows, with audience members asked to call out (in this case, type in) responses to open-ended coffee-related questions such as "My hobbies are ____," "Coffee makes me think of _____" and "I drink my coffee with _____."

Users' information will then be submitted to the live actors who will improvise bits -- anything from a sketch to a one-line joke to a song -- that will be personalized for each user whose information was included. Once the bits are complete, on-site editors will edit them, and through technology developed by social-media technology company Vitrue, they will then show up on the user's Facebook wall. (Seattle's Best said it's the first time the technology to do so is available.) The marketer will also post the videos on its YouTube channel.

Throughout the 24-hour period, there will be 21 Second City actors and five directors in rotating shifts. The event will start at noon Central time Wednesday, ending Thursday at noon.

The first 100,000 Facebook users to declare their favorite coffee level -- Level 1, the lightest flavor, through Level 5, the boldest -- will get a free sample of the coffee level they chose. The next 500,000 will receive a coupon for Seattle's Best coffee.

The "Declare Your Level Show" was developed by Seattle's Best ad agency, Creature, and Zeno Group, its PR and social-media agency. "The coffee category is serious and technical, and we felt like there was a place for this to be fun and approachable," said Robson Grieve, president of Creature. "Improv comedy is perfect -- it's personal and it's about people participating."

Tracey Thiele, senior VP of Zeno Digital, said Seattle's Best "wanted this to be unique from a consumer perspective. We wanted people to get something that was built for them."

Until now, Seattle's Best had not had a strong social-media presence -- it has about 70,000 fans on Facebook -- but via the "Declare Your Level Show" the company hopes to significantly increase its number of fans.

To promote the new-media event, Seattle's Best will place a one-time call-to-action ad in Tuesday's USA Today, along with using social media and bloggers to generate interest and drive consumers to its Facebook page.

Seattle's Best Coffee: The Declare Your Level Show

Otherwise, the Levels effort will omit TV altogether, instead relying heavily on ads in lifestyle magazines such as O, the Oprah Magazine and Real Simple; free-standing inserts; social media; and a significant in-store marketing campaign.

The company's ad spending increased dramatically in 2010, up to about $4.9 million from about $62,000 in 2009, according to Kantar. Seattle's Best historically had done very little advertising, and the company said that ad spending in 2011 has increased significantly over 2010, but declined to provide an estimate.

Seattle's Best was bought by Starbucks in 2003, but the brand had been relatively dormant during the first several years of ownership. Starbucks President-CEO Howard Schultz recognized an opportunity to refurbish the brand and hired Ms. Gass in September 2009 to helm a separate business that housed Seattle's Best. Ms. Gass at the time was a 13-year Starbucks veteran and architect of the company's multibillion-dollar Frappucino franchise.

Like Starbucks, Seattle's Best has been looking to aggressively expand its business. Ms. Gass said that since the introduction of the Levels system, a number of retailers have expanded distribution deals, so that now the packaged-coffee brand is available at 21,000 locations. She added that interest level among existing and would-be franchisees is up "tenfold." "Seattle's Best is right up there in terms of billion-dollar opportunities" for Starbucks, she said.

While the company declined to provide sales figures, Ms. Gass said that Seattle's Best has seen "double-digit sales growth over last two years." On the retail front, Seattle's Best is testing a coffee-bar concept with discount retailer Walmart in suburban Toronto. The chain also plans to expand the coffee-bar concept in the U.S. -- everything from standalone cafés to in-store concepts.

Because of bookstore Borders' bankruptcy, which will result in the company closing hundreds of its retail locations where Seattle's Best is served, the brand now only has about 350 locations in the U.S. and Canada. It had about 550 locations prior to the Borders closings, but the company said it is aggressively growing its franchise business.

Seattle's Best has already expanded its foodservice business significantly. In February, it announced a deal with Delta Air Lines, wherein Seattle's Best coffee will be served onboard all flights. Last year it announced it would have retail relationships with Burger King and Subway and AMC, bringing the number of locations where Seattle's Best brewed coffee is available to 40,000.

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