May 24, 2006
Starbucks and the Bee
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

Starbucks made its first foray into the movie industry by teaming with Lion’s Gate to help promote and distribute “Akeelah and the Bee,” a movie about an inner-city black girl’s struggle to make it to a national spelling bee. Starbucks’ backing of the movie represents an interesting commentary on corporations that attempt to engage in socially responsible behavior.

On the one hand, Starbucks’ entrance into the movie business reflects a movement towards diversification that has proved profitable for many other fast food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King. In exchange for its marketing efforts, Starbucks will receive a percentage of the movie’s revenue. Starbucks already has had some success in the entertainment industry by selling music CDs, and with Akeelah and the Bee looks to broaden its participation into other arenas. In this regard, Starbucks is taking part in the more general trend of corporate engagement in a variety of different endeavors.

On the other hand, Starbucks foray is somewhat novel because it reflects an attempt by Starbucks to “do well while doing good.” Starbucks chair Howard Schultz explained that the company selected Akeelah and the Bee because the movie, which emphasizes the importance of community and education, was consistent with Starbucks’ core values. Then too, one could argue that Starbucks’ efforts to “do good” encompassed not only the promotion of a movie with a laudable message, but also marketing the movie in a less traditional fashion. Thus, Starbucks’ sought to engage in a “classy” marketing campaign. Hence, no action figures, glitzy commercials or large posters. Instead, Starbucks’ marketing campaign consisted of placing stickers with spelling words on its doors and windows, as well as distributing flash cards and cup sleeves with spelling words on them.

So was Starbucks successful in meeting its dual objectives? It depends on how one measures success.

Although inspirational, the movie does not appear to have met revenue expectations. The movie opened with less than expected earnings, coming in at number eight during its opening weekend and then number nine the second weekend. Starbucks claims to be upbeat despite the numbers, and hopeful that the revenues will improve. This hope seems a bit unfounded given that movies tend to generate the highest amount of revenue during their opening week.

Unfortunately, the pressure to meet revenue expectations may undermine Starbucks’ ability to “do good.” When financial analysts questioned Schultz about Akeelah and the Bee during a conference call, Schultz apparently did not feel comfortable focusing analysts on the strength of the movie’s message. Instead, he appeared to distance himself from the movie by stressing that Starbucks had invested no cash in the movie, and had no plans to invest in films in the future. Then too, other than some games and soundtracks, there was little evidence of continued marketing for Akeelah and the Bee at the Starbucks I visited today. Gone are the spelling stickers that graced the doors, windows and counters. I am not sure if it was pre-planned, but the withdrawal of these more visible signs of promotion is interesting, to say the least. It suggests that Starbucks has encountered difficulties with seeking to do well and do good.

Ultimately, of course, there are many reasons why Akeelah and the Bee did less well than expected. The movie opened at the same time as “RV,” another big family movie. It also may have been too formulaic for some. Or perhaps Starbucks’ customers were not interested in the movie’s themes. Regardless of the reasons for its seemingly lackluster performance, however, one wonders if the next time Starbucks seeks to promote a movie it will feel pressured to pick a movie or a marketing strategy that resonates less with its core values. If it does, it will be a setback for those who insist that corporations can maintain a commitment to “do good” while ensuring the corporation’s profitability.

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