Rajiv Chandrasekaran had an unusual journey to his role as an executive vice president at one of the world’s most ubiquitous retail brands: He spent 22 years at the Washington Post, serving as the bureau chief in Baghdad and as a correspondent during the war in Afghanistan. In late 2014, he published a book with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz called For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice, and a year later, he’d decided to move over to the coffee giant. And this week, his first major project for the brand debuted: “The Upstanders,” a web series created by Chandrasekaran and Schultz, written and produced by both, that showcases some uplifting stories of people in an America that’s often depicted as increasingly divided.
“After twenty-one years at the Washington Post, I came over to Starbucks to create projects exactly like ‘Upstanders’–non-fiction, thoughtful storytelling initiatives in the public interest,” Chandrasekaran says. “This isn’t a PR stunt, it’s not marketing, and it’s not branded content–it really is journalism and thoughtful filmmaking and storytelling.”
The “Upstanders” launches with 10 episodes, each of which tells a different story about people doing good in America. There’s a six-minute film about David Vobora, a former St. Louis Rams linebacker who offers personal training to wounded veterans in North Texas; another tells the story of Susan Burton, a former prisoner who helps other women leaving prison start fresh, in four minutes; one features young activist Destiny Watford and her successful campaign to keep the world’s largest trash incinerator from being built in her Baltimore neighborhood; another highlights the work of Susan Rahr, who works in Washington state to transform how police view their roles from “warriors” to “guardians.”
All of this is perhaps unexpected from a company whose primary purpose is to sell you a Venti latte, but Chandrasekaran says that the opportunity to create this sort of work is what drew him to Starbucks to begin with. “You won’t see Starbucks branding in the videos. You’re not going to see coffee cups, you’re not going to see the story set up in Starbucks stores,” he says. “This is the sort of journalism that I would produce at the Washington Post, or that could appear on CNN or the New York Times. Our goal is very simple: We want to connect with millions of Americans and inspire and engage them. That’s it.”
If that sounds like a stretch for Starbucks, it might mean that you don’t know about the company’s history of trying to take an activist role in public life. Schultz is unusual for a CEO of a multinational corporation in that he’s very interested in engaging social issues. Sometimes that works well–recruiting veterans to work in their shops by offering college tuition to their families–and sometimes, like when Schultz urged his employees to write “Race Together” on coffee cups to encourage discussions of the most complicated issue in America, it’s more challenging. Either way, though, putting the brand out there in a very real way is part of the Starbucks brand strategy, unusual though it may seem.
“We see ourselves as a company that is truly grounded in humanity, and the belief that we have an important role to play in American society,” Chandrasekaran says. “We’re a place where people come together, and when we see a problem, we try to do our part to provide solutions. So when we see the problem of the toxicity and the vitriol out there, we say to ourselves, ‘What can we do to be a part of the solution?’ And part of the solution for us right now involves thoughtful storytelling. It’s another innovative thing that the company is going to be doing.”
The stories in “Upstanders” are told in video today, but they’re not limited to that medium. There’ll be podcasts coming soon, and Schultz and Chandrasekaran published write-ups of the stories for those who prefer to read their inspiration with their coffee in the morning. And if those folks are visiting their local Starbucks, they’re very likely to have heard about “Upstanders.”
“We’re harnessing our mobile app, which is the most widely used mobile payment platform for point-of-sale in the world. We’ve embedded the concept in there so you can watch the videos, read the stories, and listen to the podcast. We’re putting this into our in-store Wi-Fi in 7,000 Starbucks locations. We’re harnessing the vast reach of our social media reach, we’ve got celebrities who are amplifying it–we’re getting it out there in the conversation in a very nimble way, to harness the resources of Starbucks.”
There are no shortage of brands creating content, of course, and many of those have a social agenda. But very little of that content is actually written and produced by the company’s CEO and senior vice president. That’s something that Chandrasekaran is proud of, and something that he thinks speaks well to how seriously Starbucks takes the mission behind things like “Upstanders.”
“We didn’t just outsource this to somebody to say, ‘Hey, give us a series,’ and then we write a check for it. We’re doing journalism under the aegis of the company. News organizations are companies too,” he says. “I’m not saying that Starbucks is going whole-hog into this space, but I do think that it represents an interesting new opportunity for us, and we want to be a part of this space in a thoughtful way that aligns with our mission and values. That’s very different from most other forms of content created by companies.”