Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Lessons in politics from Starbucks: sign of the times or storm in a coffee cup?

Drip, latte, cappuccino, espresso, frappuccino; short, tall, grande, venti, trenta. Starbucks, the international coffee chain is great at giving choice in getting our daily dose of java. But what about campaign contributions or no contributions? Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue in the same way, but that is the stark choice that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is now offering US politicians in the face of the country's ongoing debt crisis. For the past few weeks Schultz has been seeking to build a coalition of US business leaders ready to join him in withholding campaign contributions from Washington until the main political parties start working together and agree a debt deal to turn around the beleaguered economy.

In the last few days Schultz has stepped up the campaign with full-page ads in the US press, including the New York Times, taking the form of an open letter on Starbucks headed paper to his "fellow citizens" to join him in "restoring hope in the American Dream" by sending "the message to today's elected officials in a civil, respectful voice they hear and understand, that the time to put citizenship ahead of partisanship is now".

It's quite a remarkable campaign. Schultz has the support of more than a hundred business leaders joining his pledge. Among those listed as "key supporters" on the campaign website are the CEOs of AOL, BBDO, NYSE, NASDAQ, Wholefoods Market and Zipcar. It is not such a significant coalition yet to cause the main political parties any real loss of sleep - compared with major contributors, most of these individuals and companies are not heavily involved in funding political parties. But for a business leader like Schultz to come out and so explicitly take a stand that effectively seeks to hold his domestic politicians to ransom until they do his bidding represents a fairly unique twist on the growing involvement of business in politics and the claim by corporations to be "good citizens".

In one sense, Schultz should be applauded for seeking to use his own and his company's economic muscle to try and achieve what he sees as a greater public good. Management guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, for instance has come out in favor of his "courage and leadership" in attempting to restore confidence. Even the more cynical corporate critics will find it difficult to see a clear-cut corporate self-interest at stake here. Sure it could help reinforce the famous Starbucks brand but at the same time its also going to annoy a lot of people too, especially those in Washington who are being labelled by Schultz and his CEO friends as having a "pervasive failure of leadership".

On the other hand, though, we might also question what's really going on here when we have a company CEO leveraging his company brand in such a way to make a political rather than an economic point, and at the same time claiming to be a "fellow citizen" with the rest of us (who can hardly afford to take out full page ads in the New York Times to present our own views on the current political logjam). This is not just Schultz the individual citizen speaking here but Schultz the corporate CEO and representative of Starbucks. But then, if (and it is a big "if") we accept corporations as political actors, then at least this example represents a fairly good case of building coalitions, providing an arena for free and fair deliberation, and moving beyond mere corporate self-interest.

To our mind the whole situation presents a really interesting insight into the emerging political role of the corporation and the difficult decisions that have to be made when business leaders start increasing their involvement in public debates. According to a McKinsey survey, "almost half of US executives believe they and their peers should play a leadership role in publicly shaping debate and in efforts to address sociopolitical issues such as education, health care, and foreign policy ... yet only one-seventh of survey respondents consider themselves to be playing that role now". Schultz's efforts to restore economic confidence by taking a step into politics gives us a taste of what might happen when these executives really start doing so. We still have a choice about whether and how those steps should be taken.

Photo by Nick Humphries. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.


  1. Keith Owen RichardsJune 24, 2013 at 7:23 PM

    It's a rather flip comment, but I do wonder - how do Schultz's forays into the political forum square with the ongoing tax evasion efforts of Starbucks? Actually . . . it's not that flip a comment at all. How does he justify what is, while not _technically_ tax fraud, but morally might as well be? Interesting debate.

  2. Keith, it's an interesting point and not flippant at all. Paying tax (within the spirit, not just the letter of the law) is a crucial obligation of citizenship, whether individual or corporate. Companies (and their CEOs) seen to have avoided this will likely find it hard to convince anyone of their legitimacy in public policy debates. Schultz would certainly find this kind of campaigning to be viewed as unconvincing in the UK where their tax problems have been heavily criticized


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