With Schultz Out, Starbucks Must Consider These 5 Elements of Its Brand Story

The coffee giant could fix its brand following Schultz's exit by taking just five steps.

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By Mitch Duckler

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Starbucks has had a tumultuous 2018. First, in April, a barista in Philadelphia called the police on two African American men who hadn't ordered beverages, resulting in a national conversation on corporate racial relations. Then, in June, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced his plans to leave the company. Schultz has hinted in recent interviews about a shift to politics (including a potential run at the presidency), leaving the Starbucks brand in a period of transition.

The Starbucks brand has always focused on its coffee shop atmosphere, but recent events have thrown the Seattle-based company into a different light. With the departure of the charismatic Schultz, Starbucks finds itself in the same situation as it was in, in 2000: at the end of a chapter with a new story to tell.

Stories are vital components of brand strategy. When thoughtfully crafted, they provide the foundation for creative development. Stories take the mission and vision statements of the company -- which on their own might otherwise feel hollow -- and make them real, demonstrating to employees and consumers alike that the company means what it says.

At this juncture, Starbucks has an opportunity to embody a new story that will guide its brand for years to come. Other companies have squandered these opportunities in the past, so if Starbucks wants to maintain its industry dominance, the coffee giant will need to make sure its story is one worth hearing. Here's how:

Tell a better brand story.

Over the next few months, brand experts at Starbucks will be responsible for shaping the company's direction for years to come. A well-told brand story should follow the following five guidelines for the best chance of success.

Related: 4 Ways to Reach a New Target Audience Without Abandoning Your Old One

1. Reflect your purpose. In today's buying world, consumers care deeply about the business behind the products. Many companies position their brands based on a greater good, which makes the brand story come a little more naturally. For example, Patagonia and Toms Shoes highlight the good they do in the world in their stories because people like to connect their own consumer activities to positive social impact.

Starbucks is already a champion of corporate responsibility, thanks in large part to the work of its departing CEO. If the coffee chain maintains its commitment to sustainable business practices, its brand story will start from a place of established positivity.

2. Get cozy with your audience. Find the specific people you want to talk to, then find out the kinds of stories they gravitate toward. Your audience will probably be attracted to the same style of themes, tones, settings, challenges or solutions in stories. Once you know what resonates with these people, you can figure out how to best communicate those elements in your brand story.

Related: Classic Tales to Mirror When Telling Your Brand Story

Mountain Dew has figured out how to speak the language of its target audience. Because of the brand's curated narrative, which reaches thrill-seeking men in their 20s, a new generation of superfans has adopted the drink. The brand story certainly doesn't connect with a broad audience, but it made a huge impact on a very loyal customer base. These superfans will likely hold the green brew up through the current health obsession which has wrecked other areas of the soda industry in recent years.

Keep in mind that even though it's important to connect with consumers, it's often worthwhile to highlight different parts of your brand's narrative to different groups of stakeholders -- employees, shareholders, manufacturers, etc. Stories can remain consistent even when they've been adjusted for distinct audiences. Tone of voice or point of entry might change, but the core of the story should remain consistent.

3. Stay true. Modern consumers are adept at sniffing out inauthentic brand messaging. They can spot a formulaic, insincere story from a mile away; instead, what they want is authentic, personable content. Adweek has reported that brands are increasingly seeking personal content. Keywords that denote authenticity and inclusivity are up. Examples: "LGBT" searches have risen 782 percent and "street photography," 162 percent.

To avoid coming across as bland -- or worse, two-faced -- brands must be honest with audiences about how they operate and what they believe is important.

4. Be cooperative. Brand stories don't always come from within. Sometimes, the company's customers can tell the story just fine on their own. From testimonials, to customer service examples, to social media campaigns, those brand stories that let the people do the talking sometimes are the most memorable stories of all. The research company Headstream found that only 53 percent of consumers it surveyed preferred content that comes directly from brands, even though non-branded content didn't even exist until recently.

Related: Why Frontline Staff Need to be Your Best Storytellers

5. The brand comes last, but it's still present. The brand should not be the hero of the tale, but the vessel through which the target audience becomes the hero. The distinction is subtle, but for a brand story, it's the difference between bragging and empowering.

Burt's Bees, for example, champions the health-conscious attitude of its customers. The story isn't about how Burt's Bees makes its products using all-natural ingredients; it's about how Burt's Bees customers choose natural products. You can do this too: Choose to make the consumer your central character instead of your brand, and your audience will connect more strongly with the message.

Now that transparency is the norm, brand stories will continue to play vital roles as both strategic and activation tools. Brand stories that evoke positive emotions will guide their brands to success, and those that confuse or mislead audiences will be met with disdain.

This transition period at Starbucks is the perfect time for the company to write a new chapter. The impact of a brand story can last for decades, outliving any campaign. But by staying focused on its audience, along with honest positioning a "sales-last" attitude, Starbucks -- and every other brand with a story -- can set itself up for long-term success.

Mitch Duckler

Managing partner, FullSurge,

Mitch Duckler is a managing partner at FullSurge, a consulting firm specializing in marketing and brand strategy for Fortune 1000 companies. Duckler's upcoming book is The Indispensable Brand.

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