During the 16-day shutdown of the U.S. government, around 800,000 federal employees were furloughed without pay. While some brands referenced the shutdown via social media—expressing shared frustration with citizens or jokingly ensuring consumers that they wouldn’t be shutting down—others made efforts to ease the burden of those out-of-work employees, even if it was little more than a free cup of coffee. For example, AMC offered a free small popcorn to anyone with a valid government or military ID, while Starbucks—which also petitioned Congress to reopen the government—instituted a “pay it forward” offering, giving a free coffee to any customer who bought someone else their favorite drink, as part of its “Come Together” campaign.
When it came to the larger financial difficulties that furloughed employees faced, several companies offered some relief. TD Bank launched TD Cares, which allowed customers to incur checking overdrafts at no cost, request late-fee refunds on Visa card payments and receive mortgage assistance. Citizens Bank made a similar offer to affected customers. Hyundai added a payment deferral plan for federal employees to its Assurance program, and Toyota announced “payment relief options” to those affected, including businesses hurt by the shutdown.
From local retailers to multinationals, a range of companies were flexible enough to recognize that some customers needed a boost—and whether it was a small token or a crucial payment deferral, the effort signaled that the brand could relate to those going through a difficult time through no fault of their own. During such a financially stressful and uncertain event, even the little things can be reassuring.
Photo Credit: Starbucks
Starbucks has a track record of addressing social and political issues causing consternation among consumers, from its progressive stance on gun control and smoking to supporting and leading job creation initiatives. With Americans anxious about the government shutdown, Starbucks created a petition to Congress—asking it to reopen the government, pay U.S. debts on time to avoid another crisis, and pass a long-term budget deal by the end of the year—and provided it in U.S. stores from Oct. 11–13 for employees or customers to sign. This was accompanied by full-page ads in newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, and appeared on the NASDAQ MarketSite Tower in Times Square.
Starbucks announced yesterday that the signatures were approaching 2 million as they continued to tally the total. Starbucks’ Facebook post about the petition earned nearly 190,000 likes, and an Instagram video of CEO Howard Schultz signing the petition collected more than 30,000 likes. Today, the company plans to deliver the collected petitions to Congress and President Obama.
Using its scale, Starbucks provided customers with an actionable outlet as they watched the government approach an unprecedented default. The initiative provided strength in numbers for many who were unlikely to take action as a lone voice.
There are two things about Starbuck’s first instant coffee product, Via—meant as a quick grab for people on the go—that don’t make sense to me. For one, Starbucks has suffered in the recession, with McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts challenging the chain with their cheaper coffee. Starbucks’ proposition is that customers pay more for better quality. While Via is an attempt to provide a value alternative to Starbucks’ regular options, cheap is not a value it should associate with its brand, regardless of the economy (a packet of Via, which yields one cup, costs less than a dollar).
Plus, while Via is sold in Starbucks cafes across the U.S. and Canada—as well as at Target, Costco and outdoor-gear shop REI—it doesn’t seem to belong there. Starbucks outlets are designed to be comfortable spaces where customers can relax; the brand aims to be one that people spend time with. But Via’s core idea is “on the go” (“via” means “road” in Italian), making it a sore thumb in the stores.
Interestingly, Starbucks’ site includes a Twitter feed that shows what people are saying about Via—not all of which is good (“The aroma in the cup reminds me of church coffee. That’s not a good memory”). Taste it for yourself at Starbucks locations now through Oct. 5 and get a free tall (brewed) coffee on your next visit; let us know what you think.
Photo credit: lookitsfitz