Keep Your Marketing Authentic

Starbucks marketers use a six-point unwritten code to ensure the marketing programs they create and implement tell the story of what makes the product they are promoting Starbucks-worthy.

It was almost a decade ago when I wrote my love story about Starbucks. That book, TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE, shared lessons on the business of branding, delivering memorable customers experiences and creating a workplace you’d like to work in.

I’ve started to revisit my Starbucks love story, chapter-by-chapter, in a series of posts on LinkedIn. My hope with this posting series is to inspire more businesses to base their future growth on the endearing and enduring principles the Starbucks business was built upon.

Today’s post is on keeping your marketing authentic. Enjoy…


Marketing messages surround us no matter where we are and what we do. It’s like we are trapped inside a singles bar all day, every day, having to endure pick-up line after pick-up line from a never-ending stream of advertisements hoping to score a one night brand-stand with us.

Starbucks marketers work under the premise that marketing has become the enemy. They believe that consumers today are savvy enough to sniff out anything that smells the least bit insincere and contrived. Marketing authenticity is the antidote to the world being perceived as a gigantic advertisement.

Starbucks marketers use a six-point unwritten code to ensure the marketing programs they create and implement are authentic, that they’re staying on message and on brand, and that they tell the story of what makes the product they are promoting Starbucks-worthy. Ideally, every marketing program created and implemented at Starbucks adheres to the following six points:

#1 | Be Genuine and Authentic

Nothing is more genuine and authentic than brewed coffee. Starbucks believes its marketing messages should be as genuine and authentic as the coffee it brews.

Starbucks has spent a great amount of effort getting to know its customers and what its customers want and expect from the company. This shows in the genuineness of one of their recent co-promotions. In the spring of 2006 Starbuck teamed with theNew York Times to offer a contest in which customers would purchase a copy of the Sunday paper at a Starbucks store, complete the Sunday crossword within the special Starbucks insert, and phone in the answer after compiling clues over a month-long period. It makes sense that Starbucks would choose to do this over, say, a puzzle contest based on Sudoku or some other super-trendy game. Doing the crossword puzzle over a cup of coffee in Starbucks is just one of the authentic rewarding everyday moments many customers enjoy. This promotion stays genuine by highlighting what many people already come to Starbucks for, and deepening their interaction with the store. Instead of going the trendy route, Starbucks stayed true to its customers.

And by staying true to its customers, Starbucks keeps its marketing authentic.

#2 | Evoke Feelings, Never Prescribe Feelings

Pedantic is not in a Starbucks marketer’s vocabulary, so preachy platitudes do not come across in the marketing messages they create. For these marketers, the words and imagery must work together to convey a sense of place, comfort, or mystique.

In fact, far from promoting its own agenda, Starbucks has gone out of its way to foster discussion and discourse in its stores. The now classic “The Way I See It” campaign, in which notable artists, activists, educators, and athletes are quoted on Starbucks cups is a prime example of how Starbucks attempts to foster discussion in its stores.

Launched in 2005, the quotes in the “The Way I See It” campaign helped to stir reflection, debate, and in some instances, controversy. The aim was to spark conversation in the old-fashioned coffeehouse tradition, which Starbucks has always embraced, and evoking the ideal of a place where ideas are shared. The campaign evolved to add quotes from Starbucks customers, that further enhanced the concept while at the same time getting loyal Starbucks fans involved in the conversation.

(The tradition of Starbucks fostering discussion and discourses continues to this day with the poorly executed and short-lived #RaceTogether campaign.)

#3 | Always Say Who You Are, Never Who You Are Not

When a business says who they are not in marketing materials, they are actually saying more about their competition than they are about themselves. You’ll never see Starbucks referring to its competitors in any of its promotional materials. The company doesn’t want to bring any attention to the competition. So while Starbucks will tout the high qualities of its newest Frappuccino® blended beverage, for example, it won’t advertise why its cold, creamy coffee drink is better than what’s being offered by other coffeehouses. While you will see Starbucks mentioning that it sources, roasts, and sells Fair Trade Certified™ coffees, it purposely chooses not to compare its Fair Trade coffees with other coffee retailers who sell similar Fair Trade coffees. By doing this, the company keeps the attention where it wants it: on itself.

#4 | Stay Connected to Front-Line Employees

Starbucks believes if an employee doesn’t respect or feel connected to a marketing program, then customers will not either. After all, Starbucks relies on its front-line employees to communicate its marketing messages to customers. And if front-line employees cannot connect with the marketing program, they will not make connections with customers about it.

Every November, when Starbucks releases its heavily anticipated Christmas Blend coffee, it’s an important time for stores and employees, who get an immediate increase in demand for the popular blend. Starbucks Store Managers can always expect a voicemail from Howard Schultz on the morning Christmas Blend is launched. He’ll leave the message from his Seattle home early in the morning, after having just brewed a batch on his French press, and share memories of what the holidays mean to him, his family, and the company.

The voicemails are one way that Howard communicates something deeper—about the coffee, the experience, and the company’s roots—to Starbucks employees. In 2002, as the company’s endeavors started embracing so many new things extending well beyond coffee, Howard took to leaving monthly voicemails to all stores sharing stories about his favorite coffees, to return the focus of coffee to front-line employees. Other company leadership in the various regions followed suit, using voice, rather than simply typing an email, to communicate the feeling and tone behind the experience Starbucks tries to impart to customers through coffee. By sharing their enthusiasm and their enjoyment, Howard and the other company executives highlight for the front-line staff the why of what they’re all doing, not just the how.

#5 | Deliver on ALL Promises Made

Nothing will turn customers off more than promising something and not delivering. Authentic marketing is strictly tied to this, and it applies to everything that’s promised, from supporting local charities, to offering benefits to all employees, to providing the perfect shot of espresso. Starbucks adheres to this right down to the photos of drinks it displays. Marketers at the company would wince seeing a pristine-looking beverage on in-store signage. Take a look at a sign next time you’re waiting for your barista to hand you your drink. For a sign featuring the Marble Mocha Macchiato, for example, even the chocolate drizzle lattice pattern on the foamed milk will be just a little bit off. The company wants its signage to look real, slightly imperfect, as if a barista just finished making it. And knowing that no human could ever perfect the chocolate drizzle lattice pattern, the sign reflects that.

Contrast that to what you see in fast-food advertising: the thick hamburger patty covered with red-ripe tomatoes, leafy lettuce, and thick-cut onions on a fresh-from-the-oven bun. Does it look too good to be true? Usually yes. But once you’ve taken the paper off and found a smashed burger with a yellowish tomato slice, wilted lettuce, scant onions, and a tissue-thin hamburger patty, you’ve already given your money to the restaurant. You could complain, but you’ll only be rewarded with more of the same. For these companies, marketing is a way to lure customers, and what happens after they’ve ordered really doesn’t matter. Sadly, we’ve come to expect this.

For Starbucks, marketing is a way to get customers to try new things and feel better about themselves—it’s the overall experience, the realness of the product, that matters most. For Starbucks, it’s all in the details of reality.

#6 | Respect People’s Intelligence

Starbucks treats customers as being interesting to get them interested. And interesting people, as Starbucks sees them, are constantly expanding their knowledge and horizons. For this reason, Starbucks uses a more educated approach when it speaks to its customers, from how it talks about itself as a company to the level of detail on its packaging. Starbucks consistently views coffee much like wine. Wine enthusiasts have acquired a palette for the various varietals and blends. They have an appreciation for the finer things, and usually are willing to put their money behind their interests. Just as a wine label will talk about where the grapes were grown and the flavors elicited in that first sip, Starbucks packaging talks about the coffee region and the roasting process.

An educated customer still has one final step to go: the ordering process. Starbucks respects its customers’ intelligence by not posting signs around the store with “Venti = Large, Grande = Medium.” While it may take a little longer to figure out how to order your double tall, half-caf, vanilla, nonfat latte, once you do, there’s a feeling of belongingness, that you’re part of the “club.”

That’s the same reason Starbucks doesn’t offer combo deals, like nearly every other quick service fast food restaurant does. It wants the customer to be able to order on her own. But no company can ever be perfect. One time Starbucks stores displayed a countertop sign at its registers promoting its version of a combo deal—“A Perfect Pair”: a scone and a cup of coffee. These signs were prominently featured in stores, that is, until Howard Schultz saw the sign in one of his stores and trudged back to company headquarters, with repulsive sign in hand, calling for the complete removal of the counter card sign. The signage creative didn’t respect customers, it spoke like a fast-food retailer, it wasn’t true to the company. The signs were pulled immediately from all stores as Starbucks marketers realized that the promotion strayed far from their unwritten rules of marketing authenticity.

Building a brand and growing a business that stays true to itself is not about perfection, but progress, about being capable of recognizing missteps and then fixing mistakes. That progress is what keeps strong companies moving forward.

Leading Questions…

  • What does your company do to ensure your marketing materials reflect the company’s mission and innate integrity?
  • How does your company address its competition in its advertising? Does it speak to the value of your product or does it speak to the lack of value from your competitors?
  • How does your company respect the intelligence of its customers?

  • note: this post originally appeared in TRIBAL KNOWLEDGE published in 2006