Dumb Starbucks, Guerrilla Marketing And Parody Law

medium_5253179784The news that Dumb Starbucks had opened in Los Feliz, CA Feb. 10, 2014 to fanfare and long lines all day for FREE coffee with two exhausted baristas manning the shop and no inventory by 5 p.m. was decidedly an exciting shock.

How could anyone take guerrilla marketing to new heights by taking on the darling of Wall Street (I’ve never seen so much national media coverage by a coffee chain as Starbucks) backed by an aggressive legal department and even more aggressive mission statement?

Turns out the store was short-lived due to its lack of permits (shut down by City of Los Angeles); however the concept still has legs, says Comedy Central’s Nathan Fielder (the prankster behind the clever) who insists his obvious infringement on Starbucks was legit due to parody law.

Parody Law And Glen Gilmore, Esq.

I consulted with my friend and colleague Glen Gilmore, Esq., who brings the highest level of credibility and intellect in social marketing and the law, about this story. Glen is a Forbes Top 50 “Social Media Power Influencer.”

I asked him whether parody law was the real deal and also if Dumb Starbucks had sustainability.

By the way, Glen wrote the book we all need to buy:

Social Media Law for Business: A Practical Guide for Using Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Blogs Without Stepping on Legal Landmines

This is what Glen said to me via iPhone late one evening:

‘”Dumb Starbucks” was a smart idea from a venture that wanted a big bang for a small budget.  They got it.

This is a fun example of guerrilla marketing, taking something and turning it upside down for everyone’s amusement.  Comedy Central not only got meteoric attention from the stunt, you can be sure they’ll make it a nice feature on their show as well.

Despite everything Starbucks does to try and be hip, the company resorted to responding to the prank by sending out a very stuffy-sounding statement saying that “Dumb Starbucks” “cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark.”  Well, in this argument, seems to me like “Dumb Starbucks” wins out.

Starbucks’ lawyers are smart enough to know that trademark protection can be overcome when the trademark is unmistakably being parodied.  It’d be comical to have them argue that consumers would be confused by the name “Dumb Starbucks” and it’d be a tough argument for them to claim that the parody was diluting their brand, rather than simply giving it a good ribbing.

Comedy Central got what it wanted: enormous free press and a perfectly timed shutdown notice from the city.

The success of the stunt will certainly inspire others, but others need to go through a careful risk-benefit analysis first.

Before diving into the guerrilla marketing pool:  take a hard and serious look at the risks.  It’s not simply a shut-down notice you have to worry about, it’s the risk of something really going wrong, like someone getting hurt in the long-lines you’ve created.

Take precautions to make sure that your guerrilla marketing succeeds in being fun, without injuring anyone or anyone’s property in the process.  You can be certain that you will be held accountable for any harm that comes from your stunts, so plan them well.  Consider thoroughly what could go wrong and take precautions – and make sure you’ve got good insurance!’

Business Strategy and Public Relations

Let’s combine the above two items of guerrilla marketing with smart legal to create a rarely seen equation of #RockHot business strategy with huge earned media potential.

The only two stories I heard the same day were in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal and on CNN. Those two outlets are the holiest Grail for media relations peeps. We know for a fact that Dumb Starbucks earned massive attention; we can safely say it went viral.

Starbucks itself also got a huge crush of publicity, too, although at its expense. Had the brand been more willing to laugh about it and congratulate Nathan Fielder, perhaps they could’ve earned even more of a positive boost (see Glen Gilmore’s statement).

Anymore, it takes really creative professionals trained in the next big thing to come up with a program that differentiates. What happened here was epic, ultra, above-and-beyond, and any other fitting adjective you’d like to use marketing strategy with public relations amazement.

  • Starbucks owns the coffee category. Period.
  • The retail launch of Dumb Starbucks was a kick in the keyster.
  • Lawyers everywhere have noticed how this unfolded alongside shocked brands.
  • To earn media attention on a national scale, you need a story that goes beyond the mundane and truly turns heads of jaded journos.

Per the last bullet, do you know how absolutely complex and challenged media relations professionals are to put together national stories that work? To incorporate law into marketing strategy is pure brilliance; it’s #RockHot.

Any thoughts for how your brand or marketing strategy could benefit from something along these clever lines?

photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc

Jayme Soulati
Jayme Soulati is a public relations marketer and message mapping master. She blends content marketing, digital marketing and social media with core PR. She is president of Soulati Media, Inc. and an award- blogger writing at http://Soulati.com. She is author of "Message Mapping: Why You Need It and How To Do It" available free on her website. Trained in Chicago's PR firms, Jayme is a media relations veteran and a past president of the Publicity Club of Chicago. She plays competitive tennis player and wants to connect with you on any social media channel!
Jayme Soulati

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