Starbucks takes direct aim at vitriolic election season with multi-million dollar campaign

Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission
Sue Rahr’s work to implement more empathetic strategies at Washington State’s law enforcement academy is one of 10 stories highlighted by ‘Upstanders.’ Starbucks

Starbucks is spending millions of dollars to launch an original series of podcasts, short stories, and videos. The purpose of the series isn’t to sell coffee, but instead, to unite Americans during a vitriolic election season.

On Wednesday, the coffee giant is launching “Upstanders,” an original content series highlighting 10 individuals across the US working to make a difference in their communities. Each of the stories — which will be available in video, article, and podcast forms — are touching and tinged with progressive values, from the development of a relationship between a church and an Islamic center, to a sheriff developing new training strategies.

“Given the backdrop of the vitriol and the division that has been so much a part of this political season, [co-producer] Rajiv [Chandrasekaran] and I have believed so strongly that we need to illuminate the stunning, daily activities of ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told Business Insider. “The media — especially during the presidential election cycle — is not covering those kinds of stories.”

“Upstanders” stories will be available on Starbucks’ website and mobile app, on Medium, and through partnership with media organisations and Upworthy starting as soon as Wednesday. Podcasts will be released on a weekly basis starting Wednesday.

Howard Schultz
While Howard Schultz, pictured with ‘Upstanders’ subject David Vobora, took a hands-on approach to producing the series, he did not insert himself into the narratives. Starbucks

“Upstanders” is notably free of Starbucks branding. Schultz does not appear in the articles or videos, though he and Chandrasekaran were heavily involved and will host the podcast. According to the company, the series is intended to inspire Americans, not drive Starbucks’ sales.

“This is not through the lens of trying to sell more coffee,” says Schultz. “This is about the human spirit and what we think is so important to the country.”

Schultz and Chandrasekaran, a Washington Post editor turned Starbucks’ executive producer, say the seeds for the project were planted in 2014. That was the year that Schultz, at the company’s annual meeting, first posed the question “What’s the role and responsibility of a public, for-profit company going forward?”

Starbucks has long been associated with progressive causes, including LGBT rights,
gun control, and veteran employment. Schultz learned the term “upstander,” as in the opposite of a bystander, from an employee at one of the company’s open forums centered on race in 2015.

The “Upstanders” series is intended to be non-partisan, and does not promote any specific presidential candidate. While some stories may veer into political topics, the tone throughout is that of optimism that can appeal to both sides of the aisle. The intention is clearly to unite, while emphasising on basic values of tolerance, inclusion, and anti-violence.

Heartsong Church

“I think it’s our responsibility,” says Schultz. “We have always been, and always tried to be, a values-based organisation.”

This week, Starbucks will begin spreading the news about “Upstanders” through its app, on social media, and using branded coffee cup sleeves. Across production and promotion, Starbucks says the series represents a multi-million dollar campaign.

While Starbucks isn’t supporting any one presidential candidate, Upstanders is clearly intended to spark civic involvement and boost voting rates. The series tagline is “Watch, Discuss, Vote.” Chandrasekaran will be hosting Town Hall events in Memphis, Tennessee, Dallas, Texas, Deerfield, Florida, and Washington D.C. to discuss how citizens can create positive changes.

Further, Schultz says Starbucks will measure the success of the project in the pride it evokes in employees and customers.

Upstander Cup
Starbucks will promote the series using Upstander coffee cup sleeves. Starbucks

“I always feel strongly, and I have for almost 40 years, that anything we do that makes our own people proud is good for Starbucks,” says Schultz. “And I think with almost 200,000 Starbucks people working in the US, I feel very strongly they will feel very proud of these stories and the fact that we’ve taken the time to invest, to share this.”

Schultz hasn’t shied away of taking political and social stances in the past. In 2013, Schultz and Starbucks came out in support of gay marriage, responding to boycott concerns by saying that “not every decision is an economic decision.”

Upstanders is another opportunity for Schultz to put his — and Starbucks’ — money where his mouth is. Now, the company will see if customers care about Starbucks’ vision for America — or if they just want to order a Pumpkin Spice Latte.

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