Brands: Let your internal culture out

Getty Images
Getty Images

What marketers can learn from a former Starbucks Employee’s viral TikToks

Zander Gjura loved working at Starbucks. 

Since September, the Michigan college student has been showing the world that through TikTok videos about what it’s like to work there. Zander danced for customers (20K views), answered questions about the pros and cons of his job (12K views), showed his followers how to make trending beverages (75K views) and dished some drive-thru secrets (2.9M views). 

Zander recently announced (on TikTok, of course) that Starbucks fired him. In defense of Starbucks, he did take a sip of a customer’s drink. But in defense of Zander, he is probably a much better brand marketer than he is a barista. 

Here’s why. Brands win by marketing from the inside out, embracing internal culture as a powerful tool to connect with the world outside their corporate walls. 

With Zander as our muse, here are three principles for brand building from the inside out. 

1. Reward transparency

Zander’s content is powerful because it’s honest. For a great brand like Starbucks, radical honesty builds knowledge and trust. 

Watch, for example, Zander’s TikTok tutorial of The Pink Drink. The countertop is dusted with vanilla powder. He sends ice cubes flying left and right. He adds way too much of the strawberry base because that’s how he likes it. He takes a sip and reminds us how “f**n good” it is. 

I absolutely definitely want one. It’s more effective than any Starbucks ad I’ve ever seen because it’s real. It's messy. Starbucks has nothing to hide.

In another video, Zander’s followers ask him what it’s like to work at Starbucks. Shot confessional-style from what looks like a supply closet, he explains that his managers have been fantastic, Starbucks lets employees help themselves to food and drinks, and the only bummer is that customers are occasionally rude. 

This video is a masterclass in modern brand building. Brands such as Patagonia, Telfar, and Ikea build aspiration and loyalty by trading on knowledge as cultural currency, not exclusivity through price. That’s what Zander is doing for Starbucks. I’ve acquired insider knowledge about the brand, and I’ll be cashing it in this summer when I skip Dunkin’ to score a frosty Pink Drink. 

2. Lean into uncomfortable truths

In a video captioned “I don’t think I’m supposed to show you this,” a masked Zander flips his smartphone camera around at the Starbucks POS system, revealing a-little known truth: baristas can see customers on camera when ordering at the drive-thru. In a follow-up TikTok, Zander shows that (gasp) the entire staff can hear what that person orders. “Good luck ordering at the next drive-thru,” he cracks. 

There’s tremendous brand building power in this unveiling. The video shows us that the Starbucks drive-thru is a peculiarly intimate space. Where the perception of privacy meets the reality that there is none is humor and truth. Zander is inviting and candid about it. He’s ready to serve you, but that doesn’t mean he won’t crack a joke or two. 

If you think this is an expose, you’re missing the point: it’s an employee teaching us how to navigate the brand, and doing it with a heaping scoop of transparency. 

3. Your ‘Employer brand’ is your ‘Brand brand’

There’s only a matter of time before your “internal culture” ends up online. Zander Gjura and Tony Piloseno, the Ohio University student who was fired by Sherwin Williams for mixing paint in mesmerizing TikTok videos, prove that if something good, bad, or weird is happening behind the scenes, it will get out. So don’t hide it; embrace it. 

In a culture of infinite choice, people need to know more — not just about your product, but who’s on your board, how you treat employees, what political contributions your CEO makes, what benefits your company offers and why. 

Brands that live their values internally should trust their people to do what’s right when no ones looking — and admit when they did something wrong. 

Find the people, values, quirks, and rituals of your company’s culture, and set them free. 

Corbin Brown is VP strategy director at Giant Spoon & head of Blue, the agency's business transformation practice.

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