THE BLOG
01/07/2014 04:28 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2014

'Tis the Season to Pay it Forward, Thanks to Starbucks?!

Just weeks after a tongue-in-cheek ripping of Starbucks for its lame 'name on the cup' policy, I find myself giving the company massive props today for instigating a wonderfully timed campaign of encouraging its customers to pay for the drink orders of the next ten, or so customers in line behind them; a 'pay it forward' campaign launched in October that is now gaining steam at the brick and mortar level, and being discussed at length in social media channels as the holidays near. In fact, a friend I used to work with at a dot.com, whom I figured for a Grinch, posted the following popular update on his Facebook feed the other day:

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On Twitter, the conversation runs the gamut from people Tweeting respect to @Starbucks and promising to also pay it forward, to the requisite crude attempts at humor. As the following screen shot illustrates, pay it forward has even penetrated war-torn Detroit, with the Detroit Lions Joseph Fauria showing some holiday spirit by instigating a pay it forward movement at an Auburn Hills Starbucks location:

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If a marketing promotion from Starbucks can make even the Grinch's heart grow during the holiday season, and other Grinch's out there as well, it deserves some accolades and forgiveness for its 'name on the cup' policy. Not only has Starbucks invoked the general spirit of giving with the greater world, it has tapped into a deep shared emotional well where the Scrooge lives. Be it Dickens or Disney, the message delivered in A Christmas Carol was embedded in our brains as children -- don't be a Scrooge! And for many adults that message is only reinforced when we re-read those tales to our own children during the holidays. The pay it forward campaign taps into our insecurities, takes us out of our selfish, busy mindset and encourages us to take a moment to give to others in need. That sounds shallow, but it is a reflection of the world we live in, where we derive inspiration from the most random of sources, including corporate America.

Brand redemption comes in many forms. Perhaps the most genuine type involves instigating a campaign that truly inspires people to do good things for others, with no huge marketing spend, or corporate spin involved. The visible benefit to the brand could be negligible from a measurement standpoint, but as with people there is always an unexpected benefit for those brands who do well for others, which typically can't be measured by software, such as positive word of mouth and deeper customer loyalty.

At each Starbucks location customers who pay it forward are rewarded with a free latte, but also an intangible benefit that mirrors the benefit Scrooge learned -- more friends and community. Try it yourself. Spend $20 as I did at my local coffee shop today and hang out for a bit. Before long you'll have a few new friends/contacts who are inspired to do the same thing for someone else.

Corporations have been trying to spin the good corporate citizen story for years, and in some cases those stories have been legit, but in others the urge to profit from corporate citizenship campaigns created a skeptical public and media. That's why it is no longer an effective PR tool, unless of course, it is actually moves the needle and inspires people. And in this case with Starbucks and the pay it forward campaign, the needle is moving. And it is inspiring others to act. Well-played Starbucks.