Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Advertising: Improving Starbucks's "The Green Straw Delivers."

Warning for anyone who cares: this may be a really nitpicky post. Also it's about advertising. I have no idea whether you guys like these posts or not, but I think about this stuff a lot so, uh, welcome to this.

Writing about the World's (Maybe) Worst Commercial really got me thinking. It's easy to make fun of/be horrified at terrible commercials and bad ad campaigns, but it's not so easy to talk about pretty good ones. So I challenged myself to think of ways to maybe touch up some things.

Now, I'm not necessarily an expert here and this is just my opinion, so if my version isn't better to you, cool. But if mine's a little better, then I think ad agencies should really start asking me whether or not, say, putting talking babies in a commercial is a good idea (actually, no, they should always ask me that.)

So anyways. Starbucks has this new ad campaign going that looks a little something like this:

I had to touch it up a bit because apparently they're litigious. I don't know why they'd be litigious about me showing their advertisement (I guess maybe they've heard stories about the internet and are worried every blog is connected to Nazis or pornography), because it's in any Starbucks you go into, but better safe than sorry I guess.

There's two stories about this photo. One I'll tell now and the other I'll tell at the end of the post.

So, the campaign they're going with is pointing out a green straw, obviously hoping to start seeing more tweets like the ones that cluttered the Google results as I searched for an image of Starbucks's displays online (I was ultimately unsuccessful) along the lines of "MMM LOve that Frappachino! As soon as I see that green straw, I know it's time for DELCIOUS!" That's not an actual quote but it might have been and, if I were reading it, I never would have known. This is why sometimes I hate people: because I am disproportionately frustrated about representations that may or may not be indicative of society as a whole.

Anyway. I thought I was going to be successful when I added "twitpic" to the search, thinking maybe someone else wanted a photo of the display. I was sure I had arrived at the sweet, sweet altar of fulfillment when I turned up a tweet that went like this: "I've got a comback to the new Starbucks slogan "the green straw delivers" yeah to MY MOUTH!" It was by someone named beerwench. She turned out to have taken a photo of her own drink (why, I have no idea) and so yeah.

What's the point, you ask? Well, there's two lessons to be learned from this:

1. people be stupid

2. sometimes people notice the wrong thing about your advertisement

Speaking of hating it, I don't actually hate this slogan or campaign. I think it's weird to think of a drink as "handcrafted," but you know, different strokes for different people and all that. I do think, however, that it can be improved.

Right. So. Improvement. Well, clearly, they're hoping to get people to finally notice that Starbucks's straws are different colors than the usual straws you can find at restaurants. There's a couple things that disappoint me about this.

To start with, I thought the green straw was a nice, subliminal bit of branding. I didn't even ever really fully acknowledge it as branding until that ad pointed it out to me. The problem is that I feel it's a little counter-productive. It's hard to explain exactly, but I'll try. Meet me again after you click the "read more" link:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There was a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England; there were a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. In both countries it was clearer

Oh, wow, that turned out terribly. Let me give it another shot.

This first bit is just stuff about advertising in general and then later Starbucks more specifically. Basically I was going to write all this sooner or later for one reason or another, so why not here and now?

Okay, so I feel that branding is kind of at its best when the customer isn't aware of it--or, at least, isn't consciously thinking of it as branding. You catch a glimpse of the logo on a movie character's bottled water and you think, "Oh, she likes Aquafina! I like Aquafina too! That reminds me, I should buy some more!" But if the camera then zooms into that bottle of water, focusing on the glistening condensation bursting forth joyously from the plastic shell, the name "AQUAFINA" emblazoned on the screen... well, that's when you go, "Hey, what the hell is this? A commercial? Wait--I'm being advertised too!"

If you see a post in a forum that uses a brand name, you might think it's no big deal. But once the poster starts putting little TMs or Rs in superscript? That's when you think, "Spambot."

The human organism has an instinctive reaction against being advertised to without consent. Oh, we may bear it grudgingly at sports venues, we may gnash our teeth through commercials, we may squirm through Clear Channel Presents Baby's First King James Holy Bible, but if you catch us unawares we will spring out of our skins in our attempt to escape being advertised to.

That was why in the early forties they would write the commercials into television and radio programs, like so, because back then people were much stupider and that sort of thing would work on them. Today's audiences are too clever for that.

Check out the advertising in this short clip from a 1972 film. Man, people used to be so stupid!

Anyway, the point is that once someone realizes they're being advertised to outside a manner of their choosing, they resent it. They know that when they go to watch NASCAR or the Indy 500 that they're going to see this sort of nonsense:

Mmm-mmm! That Marlboro taste! (I had better not see this slogan I just made up used anywhere, my lawyer is litigious)

but they expect to be free from it during, say, the television show itself.

Anyway, all of this is to say that once you make people aware of advertising or branding, very rarely is it in your favor. Like I learned from that beerwench tweet, sometimes people don't take away the messages that you want them to.

 Like that there are two meanings of the word "delivers."

I kind of feel that, by pointing out the green straw to everyone, Starbucks is undermining its own brand here. I mean, I get what they're trying to do: people might notice when they went to another coffee place that something looked slightly different about their drink (not... not green enough, somehow) and then they'd feel a longing for the comfort of Starbucks (that's the idea, anyway). I just don't think it's helped any by them pointing it out.

Now, is it hurt by them pointing it out? Yes, it very well may, as you're about to find out. But if we're talking about in terms of the "people resent advertising" thing, then probably not--although it certainly doesn't help them. No one resents a place advertising itself inside that place itself. I'm just saying that I find that the advertising that works best is the kind that tries to avoid reminding the customer that advertising exists. Could I have made that point in fewer words? Well, yes, clearly, I just did. But I got caught up in it and well there you have it. Anyway, let's move on to the real reason that it's bad branding.

The Real Reason It's Bad Branding

See, the whole "the green straw delivers" thing actually undermines their own brand in another way, by drawing focus away from something recognizable--namely, the logo--to something that any restaurant could duplicate (there's places besides Starbucks with green straws). They're focusing the customer on the wrong thing--as if we all know Starbucks as "the place with the green straws" rather than "that place with the logo of the chick with hair." Back when it was starting out, do you think the following conversation ever happened?

Person A: Hey, have you heard of this place called Starbucks?

Person B: It sounds familiar, but I can't be quite sure!

Person A: It's that place with those wacky green straws!

Person B: Oh, yeah, I've seen those! I immediately know what you're talking about based on that description! That's so trend-defying! Their straws aren't red or white or white with a red stripe or black!

Person A: I'm glad that you made it a habit to notice the strange and unusual color of the straws in the drinks of people you saw on the street, instead of accepting that there was a place that made straws in yet another color! That was remarkably astute of you!

And yet that is apparently how we all think of Starbucks: as that place with the green straws. And if that's all we think about them, they end up becoming a little less special. And that weakens brand identity. You've created two competing brands for yourself. Are you the place with the logo of the chick or are you the place with the green straws? If this was a test in a high school, which would be the correct answer?

In fact, my careful censorship of the ad actually can help me prove this point:

Okay, so, did your mind immediately go "STARBUCKS" when it first saw this picture? I mean, I know you knew what it was, but just looking at that picture, your brain probably took a couple nanoseconds more to go "Oh yes, Starbucks!" Now what if it actually had the logo, like it actually does in real life?

I guess my question is, why try to change your branding strategy when your logo is already one of the most-recognized in the world?

In short, you don't have to get people to notice you have a green straw by shouting "WE HAVE A GREEN STRAW" at them. Once you point it out, it loses all of its magic, like when you point out that [section redacted to preserve the magic of childhood].

Right, so: my turn.

I went through a couple concepts for this ad. One centered on a straw in someone's mouth until I realized how inevitably phallic that would appear (sometimes I long for the days before sexual innuendo or Freud).

Anyway, I give you my ad (unless you are planning on using it in any way, especially if you're Starbucks, in which case I am not giving you my ad in any way, shape, or form--offering to sell it to you at a yet-undetermined cost, maybe, but not giving it to you).

See, the thing I like about mine is that it says a little more--at least, in my mind--than the other one.  And yes, I know Starbucks sticks the straws in if it's a to-go order, but just... just work with me here. The thing you say at the bottom could be any number of things. I've got like five more of them, and one of them doesn't even have the term "spitstick" in it, which I believe I invented. (People in the future, if you're reading this: me. spitstick.)

Anyway, my concept was built around focusing on the straw without pointing out that that's what I was doing, and I think it was fairly successful although whether or not it's an actual improvement is really up to you I suppose.

At any rate this post has been way too long in coming, so I'm going to go ahead and post it and maybe then go back and touch things up. 

Oh, right, the second story about that picture. Well, guess how awesome the internet can be sometimes? Pretty awesome. None of the things I have that take photos (i.e., camera, phone) are working at the moment, so I asked someone on the internet if they would be so kind as to snag me a picture. I thought maybe I'd have to wait a day, but it took thirty-one minutes.

The picture was taken by Corey Vaspasiano, Chief of Butts and Butt Related Affairs. (If your name is Corey Vaspasiano, you are reading this, and you are not a Chief of Butts, I'm sorry for the confusion, but it's what I was asked to credit the photographer as so there's really nothing I can do about it).

Next time on The Nimblog: Strange things from catalogs

1 comment:

  1. I think that leaving in the logo would have counted as "fair use" since criticism is protected under the fair use law and you're not profiting off the post. But better to be careful, since they're the ones with the lawyers.

    It's also not an effective ad because "ahhhh" can also go either phonetic way. Ahhhh as in a relaxing sigh. Or ahhhh! as in "What foulness did I just subject my mouth to?!"


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