Friday, February 20, 2009

And he didn't even land a plane in the Hudson

I’m studying the news photos of Howard Schultz to see if all that limelight has singed the hair around his ears. In a mere week, the Starbucks CEO has sparked an international incident, figured into an ad for private jets, been hailed as a Braveheart by a god of business journalism, fostered more internet flaming than a virtual Zippo, and been outted for pulling a Folgers Crystals switch on friends. I half-expect to see him looming Zelig-like behind the podium at a Yankees press conference, whispering in A-Rod’s ear.

The one-time resident of subsidized housing was set on the path to hosting “Saturday Night Live” by his chain’s introduction of a new product. Whoa. How often does a restaurant brand make a move like that?

But Via, Starbucks’ controversial new instant coffee, is no ordinary addition, and its introduction didn’t exactly follow the industry operations manual.

News of the rollout (supposedly) leaked out beforehand via the internet and the current Jonas Brothers of that medium, social media. Once the word was out, Starbucks clearly harried it along. An internal memo purportedly sent to alert employees of the introduction was easier to find than the creepy picture of the octuplets mom while she was pregnant.

I got my confirmation of the instant coffee rumors from Starbucks’ Twitter poster, who added that he/she had tried and liked Via. Later, offered me and 54,200 other tweeters a link we could use to request a free sample (“Just did some math and figured out that we gave away almost 4 sticks of VIA per sec,” a later post noted). Non-stop tweets also spotlighted favorable reviews of the product, from the staff of Ad Age to store managers to individual consumers.

Meanhile, Schultz was making news on a global scale, straining international relations in the process. In an interview with CNBC, he remarked that business conditions for the chain were particularly trying in the United Kingdom because the economy there is in a spiral of decline.

That was enough to set off Britain’s equivalent of our Secretary of Commerce, the stiff-lipped Lord Peter Mandelson. Later, at a diplomatic function in the United States, he reportedly used an unprintable expletive to characterize Schultz and his comment. "Why should I have that guy running down the country?" he was widely quoted as remarking.

A Starbucks spokesman later issued a retraction and reportedly apologized to Mandelson, even though a poll on shows 83% of respondents believe Schultz did nothing wrong.

But controversy has been working in Starbucks’ favor, even when it’s stirred up by someone else. The CEOs of the Big Three auto makers sparked a furor when they flew in private jets to ask Congress for billions in aid. Schultz’s team subsequently announced that Starbucks, which is in the process of cutting 6,700 jobs, would sell its private craft.

Hawker Beechcraft, a private jet manufacturer, is publicizing that fit of frugality in the print ad it just got aloft. “Dear Starbucks,” the copy begins, “You still need to fly. We’re here to help.” The take-away is that Starbucks is being too strident in cutting expenses, an assertion that will likely be sweet music to investors’ ears.

Then again, with the way things have been going, they may have some additional tunes to mix into their iPod playlists. It’s only a matter of time until Schultz is asked to cut an album of duets with Tony Bennett. Maybe after he escorts Jennifer Anniston to the Oscars, and right before his appearance on The Tonight Show.

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