Time to clear up the confusion over the Starbucks photography policy

It is time to clear up some confusion surrounding the Starbucks in-store photography policy:  Once upon a time, a long long time ago, Starbucks had a "no photos in store" policy. In the year 2010, this is simply not the case.  I don't know exactly when this policy changed though I have some theories about that. ***Here is the Starbucks photo policy ***

Customers may take photographs for personal use while in our stores.

Members of the media may not take photographs or film in store without permission from Starbucks Media Relations.

***A little background story***

Last December I decided I would write a blog article about a then-new Starbucks in Bellevue Square, in Bellevue, Washington. My blog article is here:

Store design and community: Just beautiful Bellevue Square and Pier 55

Shortly before I wrote that article about the Bellevue Square Starbucks, I confirmed via email the Starbucks photography policy.  I had heard from a variety of people that non-professional photography is fine in a Starbucks, but members of media must contact PR.  (This blog is definitely considered non-professional).  While I definitely felt that I could freely take photographs of the new store, I contacted a few people above the store level and alerted them to my plan.  Even if I am sure that I can take pictures, if the store partners aren't on the same wavelength, I could (hypothetically speaking) cause alarm or problems in a store. That definitely isn't my plan.

So in summary, the day that I took the photos for the above blog article, everything went as smooth as pie.  In addition, as I visit a variety of stores in Seattle, for the most part I rarely get hassled about store photos.  Those stores which are high profile "beacon" stores are totally accustomed to customer after customer walking in the door with a camera in hand.  I believe that the Starbucks store photography policy is better understood in Seattle than most places.

Recently, I ended up having the conversation again about what the Starbucks photo policy is, in conjunction with this blog article here:

The faces of Starbucks: Seeking pics of real people, real partners

^ Please click on that link! That contest involves prizes and is still an active contest until August 28th!! Please share that link.

Since all of the photos that I'm seeking are non-professional, there is not any problem about any possible violation of the Starbucks photo policy.

I know that a number of partners will be in disbelief reading this blog article, but if you need further confirmation, then send an email to press@Starbucks.com for more information about the photo policy.

In fact, recently I did send such an email to press@Starbucks.com which is how I ultimately received back the black and white photo policy listed above.

I've actually had baristas tell me that they only allow customers to take pictures in their stores (even if it is friends just trying to capture memories with other friends) if the customer stands towards the entrance of the store.  This is just a false notion entirely.  I would say that the current photography policy weighs in favor of allowing photographs over not allowing them.

***What does all this mean?***

From here on out in this blog article, I'm just giving you my opinion and educated guesses, and take everything I say with a grain of salt...

I think that at one time there was a more firm "no photos" policy but that began to erode away in 2008.  In the summer of 2008, Starbucks opened up a beautiful and unique store in the SODO neighborhood of Seattle at 4th and Diagonal,  This store was perhaps one of the very earliest prototype stores for the repurposed wood and reclaimed wood themed stores.  It's a visually lovely story, and looks fairly unique because it does really look like the store design team used it to experiment with a number of ideas.  The only disappointment associated with that store is that the store design team never gave that store the lovely chalk menu boards that most reclaimed wood-themed stores have.  People started taking pictures.

But in 2009 there were big developments in the area of store design: First and Pike Starbucks opened, as well as University Village, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, Roy Street, and even Disney France.  By 2009, I believe that Starbucks began to think, "it's a great idea to have people taking pictures of our innovative stores and showing them off!"  In fact, it's great PR to have photos on the web of smiling faces inside stores, beverage in hand, in innovative stores with great store design.  Those photos should nearly be encouraged! LOL

By 2009, the store photo policy evaporated.  The good PR possibilities looked like they would outweigh the risks.

So what kind of photos does Starbucks not like? I think that the intent of the photos is what is important, but the problem is that there is no way for Starbucks to tell baristas, "Only let in customers with good intentions."  If I walked into a Starbucks and started taking photographs of tables and then posted a blog article which said, "look, here's a store that never does lobby slides. Look how messy these tables are" I have no doubt that such an article would make a few PR people wince just a little, even if briefly.  If I walked into a Starbucks and took photographs of tables and posted a blog article that says, "look, here is a remodeled Starbucks with lovely tables made from wood reclaimed from fallen trees in a nearby park" then the same photos have completely different significance.

Despite what a few people may think, this blog is non-professional, non-traditional media, and it's just a hobby.  The question really then becomes when is someone professional photography? That would be newspapers, magazines, professional blogs possibly, television, etc...  In the event that professional media needs to take photographs in the store, in my experience, what happens is that both a PR person and an Edelman person will baby-sit the event.  I have been to in-store events with both PR and Edelman people there because professional media was at the event.  Amazingly, I would say that traditional media, such as the Seattle Times Coffee City blog, fairly automatically uses the right channels before just snapping pictures automatically.  And based on what I have seen in the stores, my own conversations surrounding this topic, and my own use of photos in this blog, I would say the policy weighs in favor of allowing the photographs over not allowing them.  Starbucks probably never wants to perceived as trying to hide something, nor do they want to be perceived as a big bad corporation that would harass a couple of guests taking pics of each other while having fun in a store.

By the way, Starbucks can't really ever know how a person plans to actually USE a photograph at the time they're being taken.  A good example of this happened earlier this year when I was visiting the Starbucks at First and Pike.  One morning I dropped by the First and Pike Starbucks, and happened, as luck would have it, to be standing near two bloggers from Serious Eats.  That blog employs professional bloggers who are paid to produce content. The story of Serious Eats visitng this Starbucks is here:

Serious Eats drops by First and Pike Starbucks

As I stood there watching the two women from Serious Eats take photographs, I had the passing thought that the two women could actually be professional media.  In the end though, they produced a very positive article about the store which then ran in a busy and popular blog. Should the two of them have had a PR or Edelman person with them? Maybe so, maybe not. Did it even matter in the end? Definitely not.  The store handled it perfectly right: Don't make a big deal and treat the two customers with great customer service.  And visit the Serious Eats blog if you're hungry! That is a fun blog.

***Conclusion***

I would absolutely encourage partners to get their answers clarified through official channels: press@Starbucks.com.

Hope this blog entry has been helpful!

(Photo for this blog entry borrowed from Wikipedia Commons).

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