Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) is serving up some "good" news to its customers for free.
According to The New York Times, Starbucks will start offering a free paper, The Good Sheet from Good magazine, in its cafes. Each week The Good Sheet will touch on one hot-button election issue, such as carbon emissions, health care or education. If you haven't heard of Good magazine (and I have not), the article explains that its editorial content usually deals with philanthropy and activism.
If Starbucks is looking for "conversation starters," as Starbucks' senior vice president of marketing claimed in the article, this wouldn't be the first time. After all, every Starbucks cup includes "conversation starters" in the form of "The Way I See It" blurbs. (These have gotten Starbucks into hot water with some customers at times.)
Starbucks plans to offer the papers for 11 weeks. Cost-obsessed shareholders needn't worry -- apparently Starbucks isn't paying Good for the sheets, and each issue features one advertiser, which covers the cost. However, one risk for Starbucks would be if the sheets seem slanted politically. (Starbucks and Good representatives said they are not meant to be partisan.)
It's an interesting idea, maybe even more so in an environment when traditional newspaper companies like New York Times (NYSE: NYT ) and Washington Post (NYSE: WPO ) have been struggling on the for-pay, print side. (Of course, some newspaper companies have also experimented with free dailies, such as Washington Post's commuter daily Express.)
Starbucks' desire to offer some conversation starters -- the article also mentioned the possibility of hosting "discussion nights" in stores -- certainly speaks to its core mission to be more than just a coffeehouse, but also a community gathering place. I'm not sure many of us can even imagine going into Dunkin' Donuts or McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) to hang around and partake in thought-provoking conversations or debates on election topics.
This may not do much for Starbucks in the near term, and probably won't even bring much, if any, foot traffic in the door (unless "discussion nights" take off). However, I'd venture to guess that for people who do hang out and maybe even discuss issues in cafes like Starbucks, this will give them another indication of why Starbucks is different than many other rivals, welcoming and fostering such awareness and discussion. And such differentiators are, of course, vital for the success of the Starbucks brand.