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Jim Joseph Headshot

Becoming a Cultural Benchmark

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A funny thing happened on the way to Starbucks this morning ...

You know you've got a powerful brand when it becomes so engrained in pop culture and every day life that you lose sight of it being a brand ... when it goes beyond what it "sells" and gets even bigger than what it "promises."

This is when a brand becomes a cultural benchmark, and it's relatively rare to achieve that kind of power. Such is the case with Starbucks. Sure the brand sells coffee, but there's a whole lot more going on than a simple cup of Joe.

CNN coined the phrase "The Starbucks Effect" during Hurricane Sandy last year because so many Starbucks in the New York metro area were closed. This caused great distress not because people couldn't get a cup of coffee, but because there was no place for them to get together in the community. There was no where to share their experiences, and to connect with one another to find out what was happening. That's what Starbucks does, culturally ... it's become a cultural benchmark.

So it should come to no surprise that Starbucks has entered the gun control debate. It's a cultural benchmark commenting on a cultural issue. People become anxious to hear the brand's point of view, and this isn't the first issue to be put in front of Starbucks. By making a statement, the brand is further cementing its role in society and its power to bring people together. It's really a form of targeting, in a way, and it's certainly galvanizing people from around the community to discuss what's going on.

Another interesting cultural benchmark infiltrated Starbucks this week, in quite an unusual way.

To help promote their new line of pastries from La Boulange, all of the hot coffee cup sleeves were converted to the pink graphics and iconography of the bakery. Very pretty and very smart as people walk around with a cup in their hands, helping to promote the new partnership. Actually the whole store was pink, including bow ties and aprons on the baristas ... it was a full-on pink-athon. Now Starbucks has a lot of ground to cover with food, so partnering with a known entity of deliciousness makes perfect sense. But the pink part may not have worked.

The problem is that the color pink has also become a cultural benchmark ... it means so much more than just an ordinary color and it is on no way associated with La Boulange on any large scale.

Most people I know missed the tie to the bakery and instead assumed it was for Breast Cancer Awareness Month coming in October. It's almost like when we see anything pink, we see Breast Cancer Awareness. It's become a cultural benchmark.

Two cultural benchmarks competing for attention at the same time ... this may be a first in marketing history. But either way, I predict that we'll see more and more brands entering into cultural debates, exerting their consumer power, and bringing people together on a hot topic.