Caribou Coffee: Phony Authenticity in Corporate Social Media

Caribou Coffee is the second largest coffee shop chain in the US, after Starbucks, which is a little like saying the Republicans are the #2 political party in San Francisco.  Starbucks has 8,000+, Caribou has 400+.

But Caribou is very common around Minneapolis, where I live.  I prefer to take my business down the street to Spyhouse, which is a locally-owned Indie shop that frankly doesn’t splatter every wall with marketing materials.

Caribou has offended me for some time in a way that Starbucks hasn’t.  Starbuck’s has never pretended to be anything that they’re not—they’re a big coffeehouse chain.  They buy nice furniture, each one looks relatively the same, but the marketing materials and sales items are confined to the counter and there’s  usually plenty of room to spread out.

Caribou looks like they hired a very expensive designer from Pottery Barn to design a “woodsy lodge” kind of décor.  I frequent a small version of this at my local grocery store and one of the larger ones in the far suburbs where I go when my daughter visits friends out that way.

What cranks me about Caribou more than the woodsy photographs on the wall and the carefully idiosyncratic merchandise for sale at the cash register is their new marketing strategy—especially their “social” media strategy.

It’s what I call “the Authenticity Gambit” and we’re starting to see enough of it creep into mainstream marketing that it’s time to call out the offenders and make examples of them.  There are many offenders. SmartBlog on social media has a list of some of the more painful ones. (To be fair, here’s an extensive list of corporate social media case studies curated by Interactive Insights Group.)

You can spot the phony social media campaigns because they’re fed through the same closed, command-and control marketing message mentality.  Here’s a precious example:

Caribou touts a social media campaign called “I Stay Awake for ___,” built off their marketing slogan: “Life is short.  Stay Awake For it.”

The “I Stay Awake For” campaign asks customers in-store and visitors to the Caribou Website to submit entries that tell in their own words what they “stay awake” for.  Me?  I stay awake for my 15 year old getting home from a rock concert with her friends.   Caribou customers?  Here’s some of the entries:

  • “Driving with the top down”
  • “Pitter-patter of little feet as the sun rises”
  • “To zig where others zag”
  • “Bicycling down country roads with friends”
  • “Stopping at every kid’s lemonade stand”

I guess “kissing puppies at the Humane Society” just didn’t make the cut. These may well have been among the 12,000 entries Caribou claims to have received—they plan to print 150 “winners” on their paper coffee cups.

I don’t doubt there are aspiring copywriters out there who long to stop at every kid’s lemonade stand.  But Caribou’s marketing team selected the 150 winning entries and here’s where this turns to social media horse manure.

It’s marketing, not social media.  It’s not the authentic, open communication that social media demands in order to establish any credibility.  I don’t believe real people wrote those slogans because they sound phony.  If you cherry pick 1% of the entries in a marketing slogan contest, you’ll end up with a collection of realistic-sounding tripe that’s right on message—“to zig where others zig,” in my opinion.

In the stores some of these “entries” are displayed with authentic looking Flickr like photographs, perfectly balanced with an art directors eye to cover the right demographics, the right emotional notes.  Babies.  Puppy dogs.  Walking on the beach.

And here’s the ultimate: the in-store display of the entries is designed and airbrushed to look like it’s a home-made sign. You know, like one of those real get-well posters your kids make for their teacher?  Only this one is commercially printed.  The authentic original handwriting is phony (see inset photo) and the messages that are crafted into this montage read like bad Hallmark cards.

Caribou has committed to buying coffee that is grown according to the standards of the Rainforest Alliance using sustainable agriculture.  Good for them.

Once a year they sell a special brand of coffee called Amy’s Brand, named after a coffee master at Caribou who lost her battle with breast cancer.  A portion of the proceeds go to the Susan B. Komen foundation to fight breast cancer.  Good for them.

These are examples of the kind of business decisions a company’s management can make that are authentically trying to make the world better.  We need more of this.

But that’s not an excuse for the marketing department to try to use pseudo-social media techniques to try to make their coffee chain sound like a people’s movement.  A contest where the marketing department picks winners isn’t social media.  It’s marketing.  And I get mad having to read phony art-directed ad copy that pretends to be my voice and the voice of my neighbors.

Arik Hanson, one of the real leaders in social media thinking in public relations, actually wrote a “what if” column last year in which he picked a well known company at random and asked people who read his blog to make suggestions for social media strategy for that company.

The company he chose was Caribou Coffee.  (Arik likes Caribou them a lot more than I do)

Here’s his full post, and it’s well worth reading. It shows how opening real dialogue and welcoming un-edited comments from customers creates a real authentic trust between the customers and the brand. (To be clear, my own acerbic views are in no way endorsed by Arik. As you’ll see in his writing’s he a big fan of the brand and the company.)

See that’s the problem: the purpose of being authentic is so people can trust you.

And when the marketing department at Caribou Coffee slaps some fake social media on their walls it not only makes me mistrust the company, it makes me mad enough to write about it.

Unlike Caribou, I welcome your un-censored comments below.



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About Rohn Jay Miller

I'm a strategic designer who works with clients who are transforming their business models because of change brought on by the Internet. Solving disruption is often a problem and an opportunity at the same time. Previously I was a founding partner of Ikonic/USWeb in San Francisco, and Senior Vice President--Product & Technology for Knight Ridder in San Jose.

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One Response to Caribou Coffee: Phony Authenticity in Corporate Social Media

  1. Rick S April 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    While I appreciate your insight and cited research I find targeting a company like Caribou Coffee quite vain in comparison to the bigger fish (although you did cite some great articles).

    I would assume you’re going to go after the likes of Home Furniture and Jimmy Johns next?