The return of fall this year posed a tough challenge for Starbucks around how to make a staple seasonal product feel fresh again. The coffee giant’s Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL, has cultivated a massive, devoted following — the recognizable acronym is telling — but also plenty of imitators looking to get in on the autumnal craze.

For 2018, the brand tried a few strategies to generate renewed buzz for PSL, including by bringing the menu item back to stores earlier than ever. More interesting, however, was the establishment in August of an exclusive Facebook community called the Leaf Rakers Society, which has quickly grown to encompass more than 26,000 members and helped the brand deepen connections with some of its most dedicated customers — all without advertising any Starbucks products.

At Advertising Week New York earlier this month, Starbucks marketers keyed attendees into the genesis of the club for year-round fans of fall and how it’s grown from a small kernel of an idea among the brand’s social media division into a powerful hub for community building.

“Honestly, we spent zero dollars on this,” Kyndra Russell, VP of loyalty and partnership marketing at Starbucks, said during a panel about making iconic brands young again. Her comments echoed those made by several marketers throughout the annual advertising trade show, including those from AB InBev and Kraft Heinz, which have both recently seen viral successes due to campaigns built off of a single tweet.

“The social media team really leaned into the idea of ‘let’s celebrate our brand enthusiasts here, let’s give them a safe place,'” Russell said. “So they created, on Facebook, a little bit of a secret society.”

Recommendation engine

Part of the reason the Leaf Rakers Society has gained so much traction is due to Starbucks’ hands-free approach to managing the community, according to Russell. There are, of course, some rules, including “No hatin’ on fall” and keeping topics “fall-themed.” The page is also closed, meaning Facebook lets anyone see the Leaf Rakers Society and who runs it, but only allows members to view and comment on posts, which keeps away trolls.

Profanity is discouraged, along with discussions around religion and politics, and any product-related posts must be Starbucks-focused. These loose guidelines have led to organic conversations, according to Russell, but ones that are still frequently centered on Starbucks.

“It’s fun in many respects, but it is free of advertising,” Russell said. “We just opened [it] up for people to celebrate, and naturally they talked about Pumpkin Spice Latte, Pecan Maple [Latte] and all these other things.”

During the panel, Russell noted the different media strategies Starbucks deploys to tout new and returning offerings like PSL. A recent campaign for the launch of Blonde Espresso, for example, was one of the largest Starbucks has run in recent years, while marketing for the chain’s more niche nitro cold brews were geo-targeted and comparatively limited in scope. The Leaf Rakers Society acts uniquely as a sort of ongoing recommendation engine, and members have so far driven more than 1 million conversations in the space, per Russell.

“We found them naturally doing product referral, so it’s peer-to-peer,” she said. “Someone would just go into a Starbucks and post that morning what they had created, their own concoction with the barista, and then we could watch that sort of spread [with] literally thousands of people commenting on it.”

Strengthening bonds

But beyond being a potent marketing tool for Starbucks, the Leaf Rakers Society has also provided a means for loyal customers to engage with each other in more meaningful ways, according to Russell.

On the panel, the marketer shared an anecdote of a group member helping to pay for the drink of another member who was abstaining from her usual PSLs due to budgeting concerns. These types of charitable gestures have extended past one-to-one interactions to include cause-led initiatives around recent events like Hurricane Florence.

“They also talked about connectivity in communities,” Russell said. “We saw this incredible response to the recent hurricanes where people — they call [themselves] the LRS — [said], ‘If you are an LRS member in these areas, let’s come together and help our fellow members impacted by the hurricane.'”

The overall impact has proved to be a pleasant surprise and point of pride for Starbucks, even in discussions not about the brand.

“They’re celebrating babies being born, a pot of chili they just made, a wreath they put on their door,” Russell said. “For me, it’s been a really proud moment to watch people congregate around things they love together.”

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