How Starbucks’ UPstanders is brewing a better world

Have you seen Starbucks’ new TV series, UPstanders?

It’s an example of branded content that goes nowhere near steamy coffee shots and the perhaps intentional humour of their name-mangling. Instead it features positive, uplifting stories that makes that all-important emotional connection with consumers…

Branded a ‘Starbucks original’ in the way we’ve come to expect from digital TV pioneers like Netflix, UPstanders is short-form video content – think four- to six-minutes max per episode – that viewers can access on any screen – through the official website on their laptops in the office, through the app on their mobile phones while commuting or zoning out in a meeting, or through audio podcasts downloaded from the iTunes Store while trotting on the treadmill. That makes it seem ‘independent’ and ultimately more trustworthy than a pricey, ad-littered TV show that’s only broadcast through old-school TV channels.

But that’s not the only fresh aspect of the show. It’s positively percolating  (see what I did there) with real-life feel-good stories that serve as a balm over the frankly frightening headlines that have made many wonder how much more bad news we can still expect from 2016.

Filtering our fragile worldview for feel-good nuggets

That doesn’t mean these are stories of shiny happy people. Starbucks has no qualms in showing that the world can be an ugly, difficult place. But there’s hope. There are people out there who care, and who make an effort to improve conditions for those who are frankly struggling to get by. The show’s introduction states ‘we all have a choice to stand by or to stand up’.

The best part is that it’s easy to become an Upstander yourself, with simple instructions to join the movement of those determined to make positive change by posting a photo to Fotition, the platform that turns your photos into money and awareness for the causes you care about. You can also nominate Upstanders for future features who are “fighting injustice, challenging the status quo and creating opportunity.”

That’s exactly what you get from the show’s content. For example, in the second episode – there are ten in total so far – we see what’s dubbed as a ‘Warrior’s workout’, which starts with US Marine Corps veteran Brian Aft explaining how his life was placed on a more positive path after stepping out of the bootprints of those in front of him and directly onto a buried Taliban bomb.  Following 30+ extensive surgeries and double-amputation, Aft was in severe pain – so much so that prescription painkillers no longer did the trick. Retired NFL player David Vobora bumped into him just after Aft’s second stint in rehab, having become severely addicted to heroin. Vobora had been there himself following a shoulder injury and knew the importance of rehabilitating mind and body alike. Soon they began training together. We soon see how their friendship formed and how Vobora began helping others in similar situations through non-profit organisation, the Adaptive Training Foundation. It offers nine-week training sessions to physically disabled veterans and civilians, prosthetics limbs and all, empowering his alumni in turn to train others.

It’s humbling viewing as it makes you aware that most of our own daily grudges are #firstworldproblems… and many people, especially those we feature in Vodafone’s Healthline and Touching Lives for Airtel, just don’t have it easy. This type of content makes you feel slightly uncomfortable. It makes you think. It relieves the suspicion that bad news makes the world go round. And that’s what makes it work.

UPstanders is such a successful content marketing model that Skyword’s Content Standard questions whether it should even be classified as honest digital storytelling or rather just as a marketing stunt, because it filters through your worldview to tug at your heartstrings and ultimately leave you feeling more positive about living on Earth – and about Starbucks, as a result, despite not seeing a single Insta-worthy coffee shot displaying the baristas’ foam art skill or that green mermaid logo.

Is that a bad thing? I’ll leave it to you to decide, but one thing’s for certain – there’s value in this type of infotainment as it continues to confuse marketers and delight consumers by making a real connection and creating a cultural value of upliftment.