Starbucks’ political activism has backfired

Jun 11, 2024 by

by John Masko, UnHerd:

For an American company to build and maintain a customer base, it must choose one of two courses: either be apolitical and serve all Americans, or be political in a single consistent direction and serve only some (like Ben & Jerry’s). It cannot be political in all directions at once, or in different directions at different times as fashions or the caprices of company leadership dictate. If it does, it halfway alienates all its customers which, in a competitive market, is as good as alienating them entirely.

This is what is gradually happening with Starbucks, where it has been reported that “trouble is brewing” at the company over a price hike on its drinks as well as fights over unionisation and protests against the company’s Israel stance. For years, Starbucks tried to be all things to all people, which served it well in its product and experience portfolio. The corporation offers olive oil-laced “oleato” coffees and Starbucks Reserve stores for the connoisseur, pink drinks for the young and hip, and then just plain old coffee for the ordinary folks. But in the political realm, this same approach has caused Starbucks a major — and mounting — headache.

Like so many companies, the coffee giant was swept up in the political maelstrom of 2020 and 2021. It pledged $100 million for businesses focused on “advancing racial equity”. It allowed employees to wear activist clothing and accessories to work, provided that the clothing supported the Black Lives Matter movement. In many Starbucks stores, June Pride Month celebrations went from discreet lapel pins to wall-covering shrines.

But when America’s political pendulum began to swing back the other way, these efforts proved far more problematic for Starbucks — which serves American cities as diverse as Seattle in Washington and Sheridan in Wyoming — than they have for Ben & Jerry’s. In 2023, when Starbucks managers began pulling back on Pride displays in stores, workers at 150 outlets went on strike.

Around the same time, the company found itself the target of activist lawsuits from shareholders over its DEI policies. Labour groups began to question the contrast between Starbucks’ political progressivism and its anti-union employment policies. And late last year, most troubling so far for the company’s bottom line, Starbucks found itself squarely in the crosshairs of public passions over the war in Gaza.

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