The concept of brands becoming involved in long-form storytelling is not a new phenomenon by any stretch. But Starbucks’ recruitment of a senior correspondent and editor at the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post to lead a new long-form storytelling start-up venture is a striking statement of intent. 

Established journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran has 20 years’ of newsroom experience, on the publication that broke the Watergate scandal no less, and his appointment by Starbucks to focus on “social-impact content” is a major coup for the global brand.

Chandrasekaran has said that he is free to pursue other projects as part of this venture, and that it isn’t merely PR or marketing work to sell coffee but it raises an important question; could brands like Starbucks become the saviours of storytelling?

Sometimes, 30 seconds just isn’t enough

The fact that first project of this new venture is based around For Love of Country, a book Chandrasekaran co-authored with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about the dedication of American military veterans, tells us a lot about where Schultz wants to take Starbucks’ brand message.

Starbucks, and Schultz in particular is an advocate of greater support for US veterans. The company makes efforts to hire veterans and their families and, despite recent challenges in Europe regarding its tax affairs, it has a strong reputation for social responsibility (it was recently ranked the fifth most admired company by Forbes).  

The welfare of military veterans is an incredibly sensitive topic, and one that cannot simply be treated in a 30-second TV spot.

There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to portray, so many political opinions to acknowledge and an incredible strength of feeling. That’s where brand storytelling comes into its own. 

There is an argument that a brand like Starbucks being so closely involved in discussing such complex and sensitive issues is more than a little crass, but it’s cynically missing the point. Without them, these stories may never be told at all. 

Long-form content, particularly in the guise of investigative journalism, is a dying art. The instantaneous information age has left news publishers cutting budgets for investigative journalists, focusing instead on cheaper quick-fire click-bait, short-form stories and listicles. What little investigative journalist remains is usually reserved to more niche publications. 

Too many news publications have wrongly assumed that incredibly connected and time-poor audiences have no desire for long-form content. They’re wrong. 

Brands are filling the long-form content gap

Are brands going to replace genuine investigative journalism? Probably not. There is arguably too much self-interest for branded investigative content to be taken seriously enough by audiences. However, they are certainly capable of filling the gap for long-form that mainstream publishers leave behind in the pursuit of replicating Buzzfeed and Shortlist. 

American Express and its Open Forum is an example of authentic, non-self-promoting content that is so useful it’s practically indistinguishable from what many consider to be “real” journalism and AMEX aren’t the only brand making long-form content work.

But, perhaps the best example of native branded content came in a thought-provoking piece in the New York Times entitled Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work. It was a well-researched, thought provoking article including interviews with former prison inmates, a psychologist at the Centre for Gender and Justice and a founder of a support programme for female inmates.

It was also packed, as many New York Times online features are, with very compelling multimedia elements. The article, whilst written by the NY Times, was a sponsored feature for Netflix to promote the second series of Orange is the New Black. 

The subject of the women’s prison itself is strong enough and has enough social interest to feature legitimately in any newspaper editorial, whilst the strength of the writing means that “the sell” is absolutely secondary.

In fact, the only reference to the Netflix series comes via a comment from the author of the book on which the series is based. The content is incredibly effective at encouraging you along the journey and naturally weaving in its true motive so subtly that you barely notice that you’ve read a 1,609 word piece of advertising – and even if you did notice, you probably wouldn’t mind. 

This is why the Starbucks decision to hire one of America’s most prominent newspaper journalists makes such good sense. Genuinely impactful branded content needs a keen editorial eye, compelling writing and a flair for telling the story. Journalists have all three in abundance.  

The most effective branded content is often the most subtle

The Netflix example tells us something else about why brands are using long-form content as a marketing tactic. 

Short form content is rarely subtle, it can’t afford to be. Whether it is a 30-second TV spot, 250 words of sales prose or a six-second vine, at some point a comparatively significant proportion of that content is going to be dedicated to actually trying to “sell” whatever it is that the brand is trying to sell. 

Long-form content can afford to take audiences on the scenic route, bringing them along for the ride and leaving them feeling like that haven’t been exposed to a branded message at all.  

Lego has historically been very effective at brand storytelling, culminating in the release of The Lego Movie last year. 

Lego’s success, ever since it was founded in 1949, has been based not on selling small plastic bricks, but on selling a vision, selling creativity and selling an experience. A bucket of plastic bricks, on their own, is pretty uninspiring.

But when you throw the imagination of an eight year-old into the mix, it suddenly becomes the greatest toy in the world – one that has probably inspired thousands of future engineers, architects, construction workers, designers, filmmakers or storytellers. 

That element of imagination is what makes Lego’s content strategy so diverse, so evergreen and so inspiring. There are millions of Lego builders around the world, all with their own, unique ideas of what to do with a simple brick.

Where does Starbucks come into this? It, like any other brand, has a cause. Whether that is to change the lives of military veterans, give coffee growers a better deal or simply to sell a better cup of Joe, it has a cause to share with its audiences. 

There is a story behind every single one of those causes. And what’s more, the stories that are rooted in a cause are infinitely more believable. 

When I see a sportswear ad professing that, should I be prepared to part with my hard earned, I’ll be able to play football as well as Lionel Messi or run as fast as Usain Bolt, I’m understandably sceptical.

I’m tired of such messaging and I’m wise enough not to be fooled by them. However, when I come across a story about how my new pair of shoes has resulted in another pair being shipped to a village in Africa, it leaves me less sceptical. 

Yes, the two are both marketing concepts in their own right, but the latter just seems more believable, more honest and more engaging.  

For Schultz, the cause that is better support for military veterans is clearly so strong for him that he is willing to put a serious investment behind it. The acid test is likely to be whether Starbucks’ audiences buy into the same cause. 

21,160 worldwide distribution points

Content distribution is a major challenge in content marketing. There is a lot of superb content floating around the tubes and pipes of the internet that goes unread and unloved, whilst the opposite is often true of some truly terrible content.

Not only does Starbucks now have the help of a man who knows a thing or two about distributing content, they also have more than 20,000 points of distribution around the world. 

And those distribution points are well connected too. The ‘coffee culture’ that has swept much of the western world has created new meeting places, new work places and new places where we can open our laptops, find the free Wi-Fi password and consume whatever content we like whilst sipping on a skinny latte. 

It wouldn’t be difficult for Starbucks to prioritise its content on its in-store network. A partnership with the New York Times already sees it provide free access to the on its network, so doing similar with its own branded content should significantly aid content discovery. 

Other brands have trialled localised content distribution in various guises, although this is typically in the form of short-form content (such as special offers and product information distributed across in-store networks). It will be interesting to see whether Starbucks can encourage its customers to consume its content for much longer. 

Is there a clamour for journalists on the horizon?

The way in which journalism has changed in the digital age has left journalists with a multitude of digital skills. The problem is that so few publishers have been able to utilise those skills profitably. 

Much will inevitably be made about the continuing demise of traditional media and the prospects of those working within it, but there is an undoubted demand for long-form branded content that not only serves the business aims of that brand, but also champions that brand’s causes. More and more brands are adopting a newsroom model, and that makes journalism skills even more appealing. 

There will be traditionalists who will sneer at Chandrasekaran’s decision, but I suspect his path to be one that is well-trodden in a very short space of time.