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Shots Q&A: How Starbucks learnt from, and was inspired by, the trans community

Shots Q&A: How Starbucks learnt from, and was inspired by, the trans community

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Following the launch of ‘Every Name’s A Story – #whatsyourname’ for Starbucks UK, Associate Creative Director at Iris Elinor Vasiliou and Sweetshop director Nicolas Jack Davies spoke to Shots about the work that went into authentically and sensitively portraying a moment of trans recognition. Read the feature below.

How Starbucks learnt from, and was inspired by, the trans community

Last week Starbucks UK released What’s Your Name, an ad that was softly, gently inclusive, showing the experience of a transman as they exist in a world not built for them.

The ad was well received by both the trans community and the larger collective queer people, as it showed a story that was both authentic and transformative. The work done to provide a venue for disruptive storytelling was achieved through a partnership with the Channel 4’s Diversity in Advertising grant.

In addition to the ad, Starbucks also commissioned short interviews with trans people who spoke about the power of their chosen name. Here to talk about this sensitive piece of work is Eli Vasiliou, Associate Creative Director at Iris and Nicolas Jack Davies, the director, positioned by production company, Sweetshop.

How did the idea for What’s Your Name develop?

ELI VASILIOU: The idea for the ad was hiding in plain sight. When we started thinking about a script for Starbucks for the C4 award, our strategist Raj hit upon a little piece of insight gold – the symbol of welcome that Starbucks is famous for – writing names on cups. This reminded us of a podcast where we’d heard stories from people who’d picked names for themselves. That was a lightbulb moment – could we tell the stories behind the names on the cups? What would it be like to try out a name you’d chosen for yourself, in Starbucks?

Then, as we dug into the idea, we found videos of trans YouTubers talking about how they’d done exactly this – it was amazing validation of the script and we knew we’d hit upon something truly authentic.

How did you pitch it to Starbucks – what was that process like?

ELI: Our clients at Starbucks have been brave and brilliant. Neil Littler, who heads up UK Marketing and Product, has so much ambition for the brand and saw the potential from the word go (kudos also goes to the kick-ass account team who sold it in so beautifully). We actually pitched the idea to the C4 judging panel with the client, so it was a real joint effort.

Because we were all in it together, it created a sense of camaraderie which continued all the way through the campaign. The idea of the cookies to raise funds for Mermaids came from the client, as did other great ideas that just added more and more to the campaign. And they trusted us to get on with what we do best – making the creative as good as it could be.

What has been the reaction from the trans community?

ELI: The reaction from the trans community and their allies has been the best thing about this campaign – we’re all a bit overwhelmed by it. So many people have come forward on Twitter saying how much they identify with James’ story, and there’s been a fair few tears! Lots of people have told the stories behind their own names and how they tried them out in Starbucks. Some have even kept the cups from their first time! What’s Your Name has been embraced warmly by so many people who’ve never seen themselves represented in an ad before. It’s very touching.

Were there trans people behind the camera?

NICOLAS JACK DAVIES: It goes without saying that we wanted to have as diverse and representational crew as possible. If I’m being brutally honest, I wish we could’ve achieved even more diversity than we did, however, I’m very happy to say that we were able to create a broad team featuring people from the trans and queer communities.

One of the most meaningful messages I’ve had since the campaign aired was from our camera assistant, a trans man, who let me know how much he felt the atmosphere on set and the experience of the making of the film felt completely inclusive.

Did you receive advice from trans people during production?

ELI: From the start we knew we had to get this right. We’ve seen how rainbow-washing has affected the LGBTQ+ community – and damaged brands who’ve clumsily tackled those topics. Above all, we wanted this to be authentic and we were very aware of the dangers of being a predominantly cis team tackling important trans issues. So we called on lots of friends and contacts in the LGBTQ+ community, as well as people in the agency, to help us. Once we had a skeleton script, we consulted with a panel of trans friends and had open conversations about it. This helped us develop the story.

For example, the scene where James is deadnamed by his Dad – this was added in after our panel talked about the difficulties of managing their transition with their families. This was the most acute part of their experience, so we wrote it in as the emotional climax in the story. Plus, the team at Mermaids have been invaluable consultants throughout, giving us info, support, pointing us back in the right direction whenever we risked going off-course, and helping us cast the talent.

NICK: Even before I wrote my treatment I approached people who are trans to speak to them off the record about some of the elements of the story we were attempting to represent. It felt important to sense check things with people who had first hand experience of the issues. This informed every idea I had about how to capture the story – in particular making it feel ‘everyday’ and not ‘sensationalized’, and the feeling that their hurt was not angst ridden or melodramatic rather more like the pain from a thousand incidental cuts that most people wouldn’t notice.

How did you go through your audition process?

NICK: The casting process really became a vital part of the creative process, more so than ever with this. We put a casting call out for trans men of the age we were looking for, and whilst some trans actors came forward, the majority of the auditionees were street cast, non-actors. I wanted to meet people multiple times and have friendly conversations about their lives instead of asking them to perform for me, because what I was really interested in was the reality of their lives and how their varied experiences could inform the story and character, and frankly make it better. I wasn’t asking them to play themselves, they were a character whose life was an amalgamation of real experiences. I knew their innate being and manner would be key to elevating the script.

I cannot thank all the people that auditioned enough – they were so honest and open and so much of what they said has stuck with me in the time since. And I can’t express enough how incredible Naissa, who played James, was through the process – and they’d never acted before!

How did you find people to profile for the short interviews?

ELI: Real stories are where the idea began, so we had to include them in the campaign. The team at Mermaids helped with casting. We had one crazy day where we met more than 50 people who had a story to tell – they were so fascinating that we wanted to keep chatting and the schedule went out the window – so we’re really sorry to have kept people waiting!

We only wish we could have told more of the stories we heard as they were so varied – funny, silly, warm, heart-breaking. It was hard to pick our final four for the ‘Moving Portraits’. It was serendipitous when we met Cairo, who’d actually tried out his name in Starbucks, so we could tell the part of the story that inspired the main TV ad.

What did you do on set to make trans people feel safe, heard, and seen?

NICK: To be honest, everyone on set was treated as equally and fairly as possible. Achieving the most collaborative and welcoming on set environment has formed a huge part of my film-making approach – as predominantly I’ve worked with ‘real’ people where the atmosphere on set is vital to achieving the best thing you can.

Also, some of the best advice I received in the build up to shooting was to not make a big deal out of the fact we we shooting a sensitive, trans story and instead just treat everything as I would on any other film – which is obvious but I think great advice.

What’s next for inclusivity in advertising?

ELI: Getting inclusivity in advertising right is really hard. As creatives, we have seconds to get an idea across, so we have to take shortcuts and that often results in stereotyping. Equally, if you try to tackle an issue head-on, tokenism rears its ugly head. It’s easy for brands to step out of their remit, and that always backfires. As creatives, we have a responsibility to look for those chances to be authentically representative. Opportunities like the C4 award are a gift.

This article was first published by Shots on 11 February 2020.