Brand Action


The role and responsibility of companies, communicators, and citizens, according to Starbucks.

By Corey duBrowa

Today, more than ever, customers care about a brand’s actions and what that brand stands for. Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer found that 50 percent of respondents have lost trust in businesses because of their lack of contributions to “society’s greater good,” and 62 percent of earned brand respondents said they will not buy from a brand that fails to meet its societal obligations. It’s clear that corporate responsibility initiatives can no longer be second tier priorities; they must be core to the business.

Starbucks chairman and CEO, Howard Schultz, posed the following question at the company’s annual meeting of shareholders last year: “What is the role and responsibility of a public, for-profit company?” At this year’s meeting, he asked a new question: “What is the role and responsibility of all of us, as citizens?” Schultz often speaks about the importance of “leading through the lens of humanity.” This approach to leadership and a vision of a different America—one where ordinary people are doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities—is what led to Starbucks Upstanders series this past September. Upstanders is an original collection of short stories, films and podcasts that share the experiences of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities. One story details a man’s efforts to house the homeless in Salt Lake City; in another episode, a sheriff works towards adding more empathy to the way cops are trained. In close partnership with For Love of Country coauthor and Starbucks executive producer, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Howard and Starbucks set out to offer a counter-narrative to the cynicism fueling our national discourse.

This is just one of the company’s many efforts to apply its brand, voice, and influence to affect positive change. Over the past 45 years, the company has shown a serious commitment to CR. Here are a few of its CR achievements from the past three years:

  • Announcing on Jan. 29, 2017 plans to hire 10,000 refugees around the world in the 75 countries whereStarbucks does business over the next five years;
  • Introducing the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which gives partners the opportunity to earn their degree with full tuition reimbursement;
  • Committing to hiring 10,000 military veterans and spouses (8,000 hires so far);
  • Dedicating more than 30 military family stores across the country to help support veterans and ease their transition to civilian life;
  • Committing to hiring and engaging 100,000 ‘opportunity youth’ through the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative: a coalition of 45 companies who want to create employment opportunities for youth.
  • Opening of stores in underserved communities, including Ferguson, Mo.; and
  • Launching FoodShare, a nationwide effort to donate fresh food from stores to those most in need, in collaboration with Food Donation Connection and Feeding America.

The Role of Communicators. Much of the company’s CR success is owed to its communications team members. They not only tell the stories around these initiatives, but also help lead the corporate culture by actively identifying opportunities where the company can and should use its scale for good, and to advocate for ways to do the right thing for its business, people and communities at large.

Often, the “sweet spot” is the overlap between a societal issue and where that issue has relevance for partners in any given market. So it is upstream from the coverage itself where employees do their best work as a team. Communicators must take on the challenge and the opportunity to be strategic advisors, chart the course of the company’s reputation through how they engage with communities, and guide broader internal and external cross-functional teams. That way, they can make meaningful impact on the issues at the heart of who they are and what they’re uniquely suited and scaled to address.

Communicators must recognize that their brand reputation is not just a “face” they present to the world through advertising and cause marketing— it’s earned and evidenced through the choices they make every day to ensure they’re doing the best they can for their people, communities, and world at large. This has always been a priority, and there are key elements for delivering authentic and impactful success they have identified along the way:

Mission at the core. The company’s mission is “To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” The mission is at the heart of everything they do and embedded throughout the operations of the company. Keeping this mission top of mind guides the work of employees in ways both big and small, every day, and helps empower all to look for ways they can make a positive difference.

Partner-first mindset. The first question the team asks itself during the planning stage for any new product or endeavor is “will this make our partners proud?” They know that their partners are their most important assets. They are the frontline representation of the brand and engage with millions of customers in thousands of stores around the world, every day. They’re also a crucial resource to identify the issues Starbucks can and should address as a company. The College Achievement Plan was launched because they heard from partners that one of their top concerns was the cost of higher education. The inspiration for the Food Share program came from partners who encouraged them to find a way to help address both food waste and the increasing level of food insecurity in our country. Putting partners first results in stronger and more impactful programs that resonate because they are that much closer to home.

Be bold. Uncharted territory can be scary, but it can also provide an opportunity to maximize impact in a unique way. The company has always refused to just be a “bystander,” and doesn’t shy away from raising and addressing some of the biggest challenges facing our country. Whether it’s dysfunction in Washington, the widening opportunity gap that disproportionately affects young black and Latino men, or low voter engagement and turnout, they believe that they have a role and responsibility to address the challenges facing partners, customers and communities. This approach has produced its own challenges, but staying true to a company’s identity, allows its employees to lead the way to meaningful change.

Seek allies to amplify. No matter the scale, the best impact often comes from taking a “big tent” approach and involving other likeminded companies. There are nearly six million ‘opportunity youth’ in the U.S.—16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t employed and aren’t in school. Employees knew they had both an opportunity and business imperative to address this issue and that the impact could only make a small dent in solving a widespread, systemic problem. The real impact comes at scale—to the tune of nearly 50 leading companies who joined the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative and helped create and fill more than 100,000 jobs. Starbucks has also worked with Conservation International and leaders across the coffee industry— including many companies that are considered competitors— to launch the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, which aims to make coffee the first sustainably sourced agricultural product in the world. Some brands are too worried about sharing the spotlight to invite others to join them in creating change or are unwilling to partner with competitors to create a catalytic shift across an entire industry. But keeping the goal of sustainability in mind— and making the biggest and most meaningful impact possible—success can be best accomplished by working together.

Less branding, more impact. The rules of engagement for Starbucks’ brands and organizations are changing. Customers don’t want—or even pay much attention to—”cause marketing” because it can appear self-serving. Starbucks “Upstanders” has been a prime example of marketing done right. None of the 10 stories shared had anything to do with Starbucks, or even coffee. Instead, they were authentic, emotional stories that showcase what the company believes as a brand: that we all have a role and responsibility to make our communities and world better through everyday choices. By sharing this powerful content across its stores and via select media partners, the company was humbled and proud of how it inspired others to share their own stories and to take action in ways big and small. By putting audiences’ needs ahead of the brand, they were able to deliver results for both and use the scale for good rather than just for the brand.

Corey duBrowa is senior vice president of global communications for Starbucks, leading the development and execution of communications strategies to enhance and protect the company’s brand. He is also a member of the Arthur W. Page Society Board of Trustees and the Board of Advisors for the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

Posted February 2, 2017 in Corporate Social Responsibility