How our Starbucks campaign succeeded

Usually, campaigns take a while to win. This one won (partially) after only three weeks — for several reasons

Several elements went into the success of this project. Although we didn't do a formal SWOT analysis beforehand, in retrospect it's clear what the Strengths and Opportunities were:

  • There was a small, well-led, harmonious team with tons of energy and abilities, and just enough budget to hire pro-level video, PR, and coaching.
  • The team had a tightly-focused campaign with a straightforward ask: get Starbucks to drop their vegan-milk surcharge (fitting into their larger campaign against dairy).
  • We had a new angle: that the Starbucks dairy-free surcharge amounted to dietary racism — "a social construct built by a racial majority that assumes the food the majority consumes affects other races and cultures in the same way" — because everyone except people of Northern European descent have trouble digesting dairy.
  • The target, Starbucks, was particularly vulnerable because of its pretense to being "progressive." (The idea of choosing a target for its vulnerability was well exemplified by the campaign against PNC bank, in which activists chose that particular bank because of its business model of reaching out to students.)
  • Starbucks has many outlets, and so one could do interesting, funny things there — along the lines of the fake police-violence vouchers redeemed at McDonald's. (There was in fact a whole hidden-camera angle to this project, but the footage wasn't used in the reveal.)

As for the Weaknesses and the Threats:

  • The initial team was all white, and so a campaign around dietary racism could be exposed to charges of using race instrumentally for other purposes. 
  • The day chosen for the announcement, in mid-December, was perilously close to the holidays. If something else had dominated the news, we would have had to defer our launch until after the New Year.
  • If Starbucks might have unilaterally removed their non-dairy surcharge preemptively, before our launch, thus avoiding being tarred as "dietary racists." While that would have been good for the goals of the campaign, it would have meant less spread for the overall concept of dietary racism and perhaps less pressure on other companies.

There were several layers of victory.

One was the actual dropping of vegan milk surcharges in the UK, which our campaign could claim as a victory — and a remarkable one for a stunt that took a very small team and budget to make.

Another, perhaps even more important, was the addition of the term "dietary racism" to the vegan-activist lexicon.

For us Yes Men, biggest the victory was the sustainability of our involvement in this project's success. All we did was coach, and for a limited number of hours:

  • We suggested elements that had succeeded in previous projects of ours and of others.
  • We helped brainstorm brand-new angles and elements that we thought might be fun.
  • We pointed out pitfalls before they could be fallen into, and encouraged the team to preempt potential threats.
  • We helped overcome legal worries, in part through braggadocio and in part through concrete legal introductions.

This proves yet again what we've been saying for years: all it takes is some organization, an achievable goal, and at least a theory of change to make this stuff work.