Starbucks is looking to use its national platform and take a serious step toward making a social impact by stepping into the digital content creation sphere to strike a chord with its devoted cavalcade of consumers with “Upstanders,” an original series that aims to inspire positive change amidst cynicism in the United States.

“Upstanders” features ten stories told in written, video and podcast formats about “ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities.” The underlying tone of the series (outlined below) is about compassionate and humane individuals who refuse to be bystanders.


The coffee chain will utilize multi-platform distribution channels for the series, including the company’s mobile app and their online and in-store digital network. A cup sleeve will also hit stores.

This is not Starbucks’ first attempt at caffeine and content. Earlier this year, they partnered with Spotify to reimagine its music offering.

The move to creating original content with “Upstanders” is a natural evolution of the coffee company’s strategy, and it creates future opportunities to expand on its engagement with consumers. Balancing citizenship, civility and consciousness with the bottom line is also a strong, evolutionary statement that for-profit institutions should consider in the future to satisfy shareholders.

“For the last couple of years, we’ve been asking: what is the role and responsibility of a public company?” Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz said last week, per The Seattle Times. “For any consumer brand, especially a brick-and-mortar retailer like Starbucks, the rules of engagement, because of Amazon and mobile commerce, are really changing . . . We’re never going to become a media company. But we can extend the brand and the experience through media and original content.”

Last February, Starbucks hired former Washington Post senior editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran to spearhead productions that would play a positive and constructive role about American Issues. Chandrasekaran, Starbucks’ senior vice president of public affairs, served as an executive producer for “Upstanders” alongside Schultz.

Chandrasekaran joined [a]listdaily to detail why the coffee retailer launched their social change platform.

The “Upstanders” Stories

The Mosque Across the Street | Breaking the Prison Pipeline | Homes for Everyone | Scholarships for Every Student | The Kids Who Killed an Incinerator | The Hunger Hack | The Empathetic Police Academy | Employing the Full Spectrum | A Warrior’s Workout | Building Homes. Building Lives

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Starbucks’ senior vice president of public affairs
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Starbucks’ senior vice president of public affairs

Why was content creation in the form of an original series in “Upstanders” a prudent next step for Starbucks?

This is about thoughtful storytelling. I came over to Starbucks to create projects like ‘Upstanders’ and to use my journalistic background to develop storytelling initiatives, all in the public interest. The origin of this project was asking how Starbucks could shine a spotlight on ways we can all contribute to the betterment of our communities, and generate the feelings of hope and possibility that have always defined our country. The outcome was this content that is resonating with customers.

What went into selecting the stories for the series? As a journalist, what was the message you wanted to share on behalf of Starbucks?

The news and social media content tend to focus on the negative or the sensationalized, and we felt that we could use Starbucks’ scale to tell the stories of inspiring individuals that we know are taking place around the country. We found hundreds of stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their communities to make their neighborhoods, cities and the country a better place. My job was to bring the stories to life in films, short stories and podcasts as a way to inspire us all to be better citizens, to show that everyone has the power to make a difference.

What was it like working with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz? What kind of vision did he bring into the new venture over the course of the collaboration?

Howard Schultz and I worked together before on the best-selling book, For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism and Sacrifice, so we understood the time and effort we’d need to put into curating this list of stories and telling them in a variety of ways across a variety of platforms to make it easy for people to find them. ‘Upstanders’ was a multi-team effort across Starbucks, all under Howard’s leadership and vision. He pushes Starbucks to think not only about the role and responsibility of a public, for-profit company but also our role and responsibility as citizens. He understood that Starbucks has the scale and the responsibility to do its part to bring people together.

Starbucks “Upstanders” cups sleeves

Schultz said that “Upstanders” isn’t to sell more coffee, but rather to inspire and unite Americans. What compelled the company to expand its perspective to a community-driven, societal approach?

Starbucks has always worked to address the biggest issues facing the communities we serve. We’re committed to making a positive impact—whether it’s providing access to higher education for our partners by covering full tuition through the College Achievement Plan, our work to hire Opportunity Youth and open stores in diverse communities, our commitment to hiring veterans and military spouses, or to use our scale and reach to shine a light on the ‘Upstanders’ in our communities, we want to help empower people to be innovators, leaders and contributors to better our communities.

How is spending millions on something that doesn’t sell coffee good marketing to further grow Starbucks’ brand equity?

We believe that successful companies cannot just be focused on money and the bottom line, they must also deliver meaning and value for their employees, their customers and their communities. That is the measure of a great and enduring brand. You’ll continue to see us find ways to address some of the biggest challenges that we face in our communities and as a country.


The stories will be available through various media partnerships and platforms, specifically with podcasts. Why is it crucial for brands to be diving into the podcast pool? How does that further lead to effective marketing?

There are billions of podcast downloads per year, especially for long-form storytelling, so there’s no denying that podcasts are a powerful platform for people to hear stories like these. Podcasts gave us another medium to tell these stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in an emotionally impactful way, to make people feel connected with these ‘Upstanders’ and hopefully inspired to find ways to take action in their communities.

With deals with the likes of Spotify, it seems that Starbucks wants to be the kings of coffee, and digital content. How is digital and social a key part of the Starbucks strategy?

We’re always looking for ways to enhance the emotional connection we have with our customers, whether it’s for a program like ‘Upstanders,’ or how we’re engaging in and outside of our stores. We’re proud of our work with companies like Spotify to offer both our partners and our customers access to great content on a regular basis, as well as our work with Panoply, Upworthy, and other platforms to share these ‘Upstanders’ stories with their audiences.

What is the marketing and social media strategy you plan to execute with “Upstanders?”

It’s a multi-platform approach and a key part of our efforts to leverage the strength and trust in our brand to affect positive change in the communities we serve. The content will continue to promote ‘Upstanders’ across all channels, including retail (‘Upstanders’ cup sleeves in all US stores), social and digital (Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc.), as well as Starbucks’ leading mobile app. Digital partnerships and syndication with Upworthy,, AOL, and NationSwell are also key to sharing this content with customers.

Why is it imperative for Fortune 500 brands to step outside of the box and be more experiential?

As I mentioned, we believe that it’s crucial that brands stand for more than just making money, that they are committed to delivering a great experience for their employees, customers and the communities they serve. This has always been a core belief of Starbucks and is at the heart of our mission which is ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.’

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