Starbucks chooses a cheap social-media campaign to push Via instant coffee

In February, Starbucks (SBUX) invited AOL to taste a secret new product. In my capacity as a coffee and Starbucks expert, I got a few samples of the product, Via, and uploaded photographs to Flickr before giving my verdict.

I'd almost forgotten that Via's national launch was coming up -- next Tuesday -- until I received an email from Starbucks's Via "moderator," thanking me for posting such a great photo, and offering me both free instant-coffee packets and instant fame in the product's launch. All it would take, online community manager Anali Orr told me, was my permission (pdf link) to give Starbucks "a perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive fully-paid up and royalty free license" "without restrictions of any kind and without any payment or other consideration of any kind" -- other than, of course, three months' worth of free coffee packets.
The wording of the email had me shaking my head before I'd even opened the licentious agreement. But I had to marvel at this new marketing strategy, surely not invented by Starbucks, but used here with marked cheekiness: Viral marketing is so great, we needn't use any of the regular kind. Call it "crowdsourcing," or "brand loyalty," or "astroturfing," or any smart, critical buzzword: what it's really creating is a marketing strategy based on a desire not to spend money to generate enthusiasm among the less intellectual property-savvy consumers.

You could call it product marketing by social media, or you could just call it cheap. Marketers can now be stingy and hip in one fell swoop. And while they will certainly create minor tempests among customers like me -- those who know how much their photos are worth -- it might just work. Starbucks is banking big on the brand loyalty of customers and its employees, who have been told to sell Via packets aggressively. And not just to sell them but to "incorporate it into [their] daily lives," as a post on Starbucks Gossip relates.

Starbucks has a lot to prove with the Via launch. For one thing, as one Starbucks Gossip commenter states, CEO Howard Schultz must prove he's not living on a separate "planet, state of denial, or phase of dementia" to believe that customers who love premium coffee will buy instant coffee at nearly a dollar per cup (which is 12 times the cost of a cup of Maxwell House). Starbucks is walking the finest of lines between cultural relevance and anachronism. Is this really the time to launch a brilliant, groundbreaking, slightly-better-than-normal instant coffee?

My collection of '70s, '80s, and early-'90s cookbooks is rife with references to instant espresso powder -- surely the trendiest dessert ingredient in recent decades. Now Starbucks associates are urged to be creative with Via. And as most of them are too young to have made desserts from a 1987 issue of Gourmet, they're mixing coffee with milk and vodka, and into cupcakes. They're being taught sales strategies straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross to close the sale. It's wise not to pitch this Via strategy to the decidedly jaded media; most reporters and editors would deny that instant coffee is either new or hip.

So, about those photos. "Content creators" -- I wasn't the only one -- were offered a three-month "subscription" to Via, 12 packets each month, as a "thank you" for posting our images and videos. We were also offered the gift of a photo credit and a link back to the image in exchange for those perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive royalty-free rights to use the image in both the new StarbucksVia.com web site (which also will debut on September 29) and worldwide advertising.

I responded, indicating that I am a freelancer, and I only allow businesses to use my photos with payment.

A few hours later, I received an email from Anali Orr: "
Unfortunately, the incentive to let us showcase your content is that we will link back to your Flickr page from StarbucksVIA.com allowing you to drive increased traffic and visibility to your page. However, we completely understand if you only accept payment and we will be sure not to highlight it on StarbucksVIA.com." And here I was, thinking that trading content for "increased traffic and visibility to your page" was a trigger for my spam filter -- a sales pitch that went out in the late 1990s, along with instant-espresso powder.

Update, September 25: I spoke with a PR representative from Starbucks today who called to brief me on the wide variety of marketing efforts the company is undergoing as part of this campaign. I've seen some of them, including the VIA road trip, where the Starbucks Live crew is posting videos, tweets and Facebook updates. She tells me this is the biggest launch in Starbucks history and will be supported with television advertising as well as the social media campaign. The email I received, she said, was just a tiny part of this campaign. On the day of the launch, I'll follow up as I talk to one of the heads of the campaign.

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