Starbucks becomes a media company with first original series

Called "Upstanders," the 10-episode series highlights real people who are helping local communities

Financial trends and news by Steven Loeb
September 7, 2016
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It's been clear for a pretty long time that Starbucks sees itself as more than just a place to buy coffee. It has been using its stores to promote albums and books, while also entering into numerous tech partnerships with companies like Square and Spotify/

Now it's starting to head in a new, and fairly unexpected, direction: original content production. 

On Wednesday, Starbucks unveiled its first ever original content series, called “Upstanders." It features a total of 10 episodes, which are meant to highlight "ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities."

Episodes tackle such issues as Islamphobia in The Mosque Across the Street; homelessness in Homes for Everyone; police reform in The Empathetic Police Academy; and autism in Employing the Full Spectrum.

Each entry in the series was written and produced by Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the company's executive producer and a former senior editor of The Washington Post.

The idea behind the project was to promote civic responsibility and unity, in a time when people seem to be more divided than ever.

We’ve asked ourselves what is the role and responsibility of a public company and, as citizens, how we can catalyze hope in a time when we need more optimism, empathy, compassion and leadership,” Schultz said in a statement.

The upstanders featured in this series are inspiring individuals whose actions are emblematic of the American spirit and what is missing from so much of today’s national dialogue. We have always been storytellers at heart, and more of these stories need to be heard. We are using our scale to share them as broadly as possible.”

Users will have multiple ways of accessing “Upstanders." It will be available in written and video form on Audio versions of each story, which will launch weekly through downloadable podcasts, will also be accessible through the site.

In addition, the company will also be holding celebrations of the people highlighted in the firms with local Town Hall events around the country, each of which will be hosted by Chandrasekara.

Starbucks and technology

Creating its own original content is a really interesting move for Starbucks, and somewhat unprecedented, even though this is company that has been a champion of technology for years.

Starbucks rolled out its own mobile payments system back in 2011, which allowed customers to pay directly with their smartphones, and has been offering free WiFi in its stores nationwide since 2010.

A few years ago it started using the Internet of Things to better stock its stores, using Clover coffee-brewing machines which are connected to the cloud and allow stores to not only track customer preferences, but for recipes to be digitally updated and to allow employees to monitor how a coffee maker is performing.

The most famous technology partnership for Starbucks came in August of 2012 when it began to accept Square payment in 7,000 locations around the United States. The agreement was so important that we at Vator called it nothing short of a "big damn deal" because of the impact it would have on the digital wallet. 

Other partnerships have included Postmates, to deliver Starbucks coffee right to the customer's door, as well as Spotify, to allow Starbucks members access to Starbucks music on the service, and the ability to influence in-store playlists.

While plenty of retailers have embraced technology, typically when it comes to in-store payments, it's hard to think of another retailer that has as gone as Starbucks has, or one that would start producing its own digital content, especially when it has nothing to do with selling its product.

Of course, there's always some danger in branching out this like. While launching original content seems like the thing to do right now, it's not as easy as it looks.

Just ask Yahoo, which launched Yahoo Screen in 2013 as a big part of the company's larger video strategy. Not only did the app include clips from Comedy Central shows, as well as 38 years of archived Saturday Night Live footage, but it was the home for Yahoo's original programming, including the sixth season of Community, the show it rescued after it was canceled by NBC.

Unfortunately, Yahoo's foray into original programming actually turned out to be a disaster, as it was forced to take a $42 million write-off on those shows. Screen was shut down at the beginning of this year. 

It seems unlikely that the current content being produced by Starbucks would carry a heavy price tag, given that these are small-scale stories about local people, but it should probably tread lightly if it decides to go bigger.

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