You may remember Dumb Starbucks from this past February: It appeared in a Los Angeles strip mall selling “Dumb Mocha Frappuccinos" without fanfare. Soon, lines snaked around the block, and local officials were threatening to shut the place down. It turned out to be an stunt for an episode of “Nathan for You,” a Comedy Central series that launched its second season at the beginning of July.
The Dumb Starbucks episode of “Nathan for You” is set to air this coming Tuesday, July 29. Now in its second season, the show is a send-up of the “business improvement” genre of reality TV, comprised of series like “Kitchen Nightmares,” and “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover,” where the host swoops into a struggling business and, with a little tough love and a lot of renovations, turns things around.
In this version Nathan Fielder, a comedian and self-proclaimed graduate of “one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades,” lends his services to real businesses as well. Only, he plays a dolt who dreams up wildly misguided yet often effective ways to get customers’ attention, and the business owners are usually too nice to tell him no. In the first season, he convinces a pizzeria owner to offer an “8-minute or less” delivery guarantee or give customers a free pizza – only the free pizza is about an inch wide. In the Season 2 premiere, he has an auto mechanic give repair estimates while hooked up to a lie detector test.
Starbucks, not to mention California health inspectors, were not amused. Dumb Starbucks could serve food, Fielder claimed, because it was an art installation, not a food service establishment.The coffee company threatened a lawsuit, and Dumb Starbucks was quickly shut down for not having proper food and drink vendor licenses. But the story flooded national news outlets and generated a ton of publicity for Fielder’s show, which premiered in June to far more robust media coverage than the first season.
“We thought that Dumb Starbucks might be a local food story,” Fielder told Rolling Stone Thursday. "We never thought it would strike a chord with the mainstream media. I didn't realize this mystery angle would be such a big hook. The fun thing is, we embraced that element of it on the show.”
It’s not the first time Fielder has displayed a genius for catching the attention of the news cycle. For the first season, he created a fake video of a pig saving a goat as an effort to drum up business for a local petting zoo and posted it on YouTube. It exploded on the Internet, and several outlets, including NBC and CNN, quickly seized upon the footage of a goat struggling in the water and a pig swimming up to nudge him to shore as real.
So what lessons in business can we learn from “Nathan for You”? For one, finding loopholes in regulations can be a good way to set yourself apart. Also, details like the name of your business or good signage and directions can be less important than a killer gimmick or a really good viral video.*
*Don’t follow any of these rules.