Why Starbucks is Exiting the Music Business and Embracing Filmmaking


Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is on a mission to change the world, from wages to veterans to communities on the brink of collapse. Now he’s steering the company into the brands-as-publishers business, investing in content creation by backing documentaries about the social issues he wants the company to take a stand on.

As Starbucks exits the music business, pulling its point-of-sale CD sales rack and unwinding its Hear Music joint venture, it’s getting into video instead of audio—a troubled business that even Starbucks can’t fix—with a new video production company.

As yet unnamed, it will focus on TV and film projects with “social-impact content,” as the journalist leading the effort for Schultz phrased it on social media.[more]

As the Columbia Journalism Review reported last week, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, senior correspondent and an editor at The Washington Post, is leaving after two decades to move to Seattle and work as a de facto on-call journalist for Schultz.

The first project that he will oversee, and which Starbucks will back, is a documentary based on For Love of Country, the 2014 book celebrating the dedication and sacrifice of US military veterans, which Chandrasekaran co-authored with the Starbucks CEO.

One inspiration for turning that project into a TV or film series was no doubt the videos that were created to support the book’s launch last year. And on a personal and corporate level, Schultz doesn’t want to be Ken Burns, but does have a track record as an advocate for US veterans. Last year, he tasked his HR team with hiring thousands of vets (and their spouses).

Their partnership in a Starbucks-funded media company shows how journalists are redefining their brands and how the lines are blurring and evolving. It was no doubt part of their deal that Schultz, by becoming his publisher, won’t impede his integrity as a journalist. In return, Schultz has hired a reporter and storyteller of the highest order.

Bringing impeccable journalistic credentials and a storied career at the Post, Chandrasekaran was the paper’s Baghdad bureau chief and has written books on the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, was a finalist for a 2006 National Book Award.

“My initial focus will be to develop television and film projects tied to For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism and Sacrifice,” Chandrasekaran posted on Facebook.

Chandrasekaran already knows Schultz not only as a storyteller and CEO wth soul, but as a benevolent backer with deep pockets and a zeal to redefine business—an experience he has already been through after another Seattle mogul, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, bought the Washington Post but has been, it seems, mostly hands off in the newsroom.

Of the new venture with Schultz, which will see Starbucks invest in key projects but not support the entire company, which will be free to pursue other projects, Chandrasekaran told CJR, “It’s pretty embryonic.”  

“This is not going to be PR or marketing work. This is Starbucks and Howard Schultz recognizing the power of storytelling and wanting to help contribute to the national understanding around a set of key issues.”

Starbucks has been quietly dipping its toe into filmmaking. The brand tested documentary-style storytelling with its global brand campaign that launched in September, “Meet Me at Starbucks,” which captures a single day at its stores in 28 countries.

It’s also in keeping with the Starbucks brand DNA as a socially progressive company and corporate citizen, one that has the bandwidth, the footprint and commitment to storytelling and corporate citizenship in order to make an impact and support communities.

A recent extension of the “Meet Me at Starbucks” series, below, shows a deaf meet-up at one of its stores in Hawaii:

In embracing longform, journalistic storytelling, Starbucks follows other brand (global and smaller) testing the waters of branded journalism and documentary-making, including Illy and Patagonia, along with Amazon, Yahoo!, Google, Pepsi and Chipotle, which made a big impact with its “Back to the Start” short film and follow-up.

Consider Red Bull, which has pioneered action filmmaking and partnered with the BBC and National Geographic Channel to produce a documentary about Felix Baumgartner’s space dive. Or Mondelez, with its real-time Blink Studios venture with NowThisNews in New York, which is looking to inject shortform content into the news, albeit in a more viral, made-for-social way.

“Brands have the power (and responsibility) to use their sphere of influence to galvanize the masses,” commented Dominik Prinz, senior director of strategy for Interbrand. 

“We live in a time where people are intrigued by images: photos on Instragram, video clips on Vine or on YouTube,” he added. “As a consequence, brands like Starbucks, Patagonia or Chipotle are becoming content creators, using social documentaries to shed light on some of the most important issues of our time. “

For Starbucks, storytelling is becoming even more critical to shaping its narrative and purpose—a big reason it was recently named one of Fortune‘s 2015 Most Admired Companies for consistent leadership in corporate citizenship.

And now, with the hiring of Chandrasekaran, Howard Schultz has a key partner in those efforts.