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Great Brand Stories, Vol. I : Starbucks

By Michael Neelsen

Today we will be breaking down a brand story released by Starbucks to promote its new Veranda (blonde) Roast.

First, Watch the Video

This is a great example of brand storytelling. Let’s take it beat by beat.

The Aesthetics

The very first image is a high-contrast black-and-white photograph of a hip twentysomething Starbucks barista at work. Immediately the audience knows what this video is selling, and they are either drawn in by the aesthetic of the black-and-white stills or they aren’t. The chosen style of the photographs over motion video is not for everyone, and Starbucks understands that. This video is not trying to please everybody, and that is one of its strongest assets.

Also, all of the voice-over used in this video is unscripted. As a result, the piece feels authentic, real, and touchable. When you’re dealing with non-professional actors, it is almost always better to go unscripted. Actors are paid lots of money to make scripted words sound off-the-cuff because it is a difficult thing to do, so don’t put that burden on the untrained.

It would seem, based on these aesthetics, that Starbucks saw their audience as somewhat corporate-resistant young people (not just millennials) who see themselves as appreciating the boutique, the specialty, and the hand-crafted product.

Inciting Incident: Starbucks Customers Are Unsatisfied

The first line of voice-over is: “A lot of customers come in and say, you know, I love Starbucks, but your coffee’s too strong for me.”

In the very first line, they are presenting a problem — Starbucks has left “a lot” of customers unfulfilled in the past. This statement is a disarmer for the audience and builds trust. The audience thinks, “Well, if Starbucks is willing to say they haven’t satisfied ‘a lot’ of their customers, they must be telling me the truth, because why would a business make up a negative?” It earns the video a lot of credibility. It also implies a personal, local touch from a major national brand.

Object of Desire: Starbucks Wants to Satisfy These Unsatisfied Customers

After that line of voice-over, the video cuts to a title card that reads: “So we wanted to create a lighter roast for them.”

The main character is identified as “we,” or the Starbucks brand, and the character’s object of desire is stated plainly: “to satisfy customers who want a lighter roast.” The major dramatic question has been presented: “Will Starbucks please its customers?” We, the audience, intrinsically know that this story will end with an answer to that question.

This title card also follows the storytelling principle of “Buts and Therefores”. The sentence only makes sense when taken in context with what came before it. All stories are a series of actions and reactions, causes and effects. It’s what creates the push-pull of story. Where people get into trouble is when they start writing “and then, and then, and then,” instead of “but,” “therefore,” or in this case, “so.”

Presenting the idea of brewing a lighter roast as a reaction to customer complaints (instead of a disconnected thought) tells the audience that a) Starbucks listens to its customers’ criticisms, and b) Starbucks is inclusive and wants everyone to be happy with their product, not just the customers that “get it.” Remember, it is in the main character’s reaction to obstacles that tells us the most about him/her.

Obstacle: The Challenge of Craftsmanship

The next line of voice-over is “Light roast? I mean, this is something that we had never done before.”

Everyone can relate to the fear of the unknown and the struggle to accomplish something new you’ve never done before. In order for our main character (Starbucks) to get its object of desire (satisfy the unsatisfied customers), they will have to jump into the deep end of the pool and sink or swim.

Progressive Complication: 80 Tries

Immediately following the voice-over, we are presented with a montage of title cards that read, “Ver. 1,” “Ver. 2,” “Ver. 3,” and so on.

Seeing these titles intercut with more photographs of coffee roasting tells us that Starbucks has begun the process of crafting the lighter roast. This is the most cinematic aspect of the video in that it plays on the montage theory pioneered by Russian filmmakers Lev Kuleshov and V.I. Pudovkin in the 1920s — two unrelated images (a photograph of a man sipping coffee and a title card that reads “Ver. 1”), when cut together, create a third idea in the mind of the audience (“They are testing new product”).

Film is psychological magic.

The next line of voice-over: “When we were developing blonde roast, it was crazy. It was the whole coffee team in there roasting different kinds of coffees. Tasting all the flavors again and again.”

So, our main character’s effort to satisfy the unsatisfied customers is not easy. This is where what’s good for business storytelling and what’s good for business in real life diverge a bit. No doubt, Starbucks would’ve loved to nail it on their first try — it would’ve saved them time and money. But the fact that it didn’t come easy is fantastic for the story. In storytelling, everything moves forward through conflict.

More title cards flash across the screen: “Ver. 47,” “Ver. 48,”…

More voice-over: “One minute we knew we had it, or we thought we had it, then the next minute were like, ‘Ah… I don’t know if this is actually right.’ We had to make sure it was perfect.”

I’m impressed that Starbucks was willing to imply so much struggle in their story, because this is not a comfortable thing for a business to do. Most companies are afraid to show challenges, problems or struggles because they perceive it as a risk to their brand image. But Starbucks, with guidance from the agency that produced this video, understood that every story needs an underdog. The end product may be “perfect,” but nobody relates to easily-acquired perfection.

With each new version of the roast, “Ver. 50,” “Ver. 51,” the dramatic stakes are rising. More money is being spent. More time is being invested. The audience interprets, “Boy, Starbucks must really care about this thing they’re making!”

Voice-over: “… and that took 80 tries.”

Turning Point: Success

The final bit of voice-over “Holy cow. This is really light. This is really good! With blonde roast, we have something for everybody.”

The initial setup of the object of desire, “we wanted to create a lighter roast for them,” is paid off directly with “we have something for everybody.” The major dramatic question has been answered, the narrative arc has been closed. Our main character (the Starbucks brand) has achieved success.

If StoryFirst Media had produced this spot, here is where we might have made one adjustment.

Instead of just cutting from “that took 80 tries” to the success of developing the perfect light roast, it may have been better to include the final dramatic decision¬†that brought about the success. After 79 versions of the roast, what was the last thing that pushed it over the edge from good to great? What was the dilemma? Were they about to give up until someone had the perfect idea? Were there two (or more) perfect ideas that had to be pit against each other?

Including a final dramatic decision or action is what really creates the turning point. As it stands in the finished video, the decision to develop 80 different roasts effectively doubles as the progressive complication and final dramatic action, so it certainly works. The choice to not include a final dramatic action may have been made in the interest of time (the video’s total run time is 1 minute, 2 seconds), and that would be understandable. It would be difficult for every business story to include every storytelling element, and this one certainly does more than the vast majority.

The Lasting Impact on the Audience

Now that Starbucks has told a complete brand story to promote its Veranda (blonde) Roast, the audience can now see themselves in the story and tell their own version to others. With this story, Starbucks has fostered an environment for customer loyalty and word-of-mouth. One can easily imagine the conversation among friends.

“I can’t drink Starbucks. Too strong for me.”

“Yeah? Have you tried their new blonde roast? I heard it took them 80 tries to get it right.”

In an age of increased digital connectedness at the expense of real-world interaction, people everywhere are drawn to the specialty, hand-made product — a product that was made with all the care and humanity of the development team. Just like the pleasure of a handwritten letter, Starbucks Veranda Roast took time, thought, and effort to craft.

Starbucks was smart enough to mold that message into a story instead of just a “video,” and their audience will carry the story with them.