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When Boycotts Work: Howard Schultz Could Do to Starbucks What No One Else Could

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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Starbucks has achieved near-legendary status for its ability to weather a seemingly endless parade of boycotts, and now it looks like the company is in for another test. Former CEO Howard Schultz set off a firestorm of protest earlier this week when he let word slip that he may make a run for the White House as an independent in 2020.

How could this boycott work?

There are many angles to the latest Starbucks boycott, not the least of which is that Schultz just launched a three-month tour to promote his new book.

Generating free publicity on a national basis all but guarantees healthy numbers on the sales ledger, whether or not Schultz follows through to pursue the role of Commander-in-Chief. Reportedly he intends to make an announcement when the book tour concludes.

Another angle involves Schultz’s status as the former — not the current — CEO of Starbucks. Schultz grew the company from a small beanery into a global colossus, but last June he announced that he was stepping down from his position. That raises the question of whether or not a Starbucks boycott would have any impact on him.

That’s a good question. The answer is yes, probably.

Schultz may have an ongoing financial interest in in the company’s ability to thrive. Aside from that, Starbucks is the core of his reputation and they key to his legitimacy as an influencer, both politically and in the private sector.

Why are people so upset at Starbucks this time?

Under Schultz’s tenure, Starbucks amassed a considerable record in the corporate social responsibility CSR area, so it’s no surprise that its boycotters typically come from the right side of the political spectrum.

Helping to fuel the right-win fire is the Fox News organization, which routinely targets Starbucks for the design of its holiday cups.

Nevertheless, the company has also endured boycotts (or at least the threat of a boycott) from the left. Just last spring, for example, Starbucks took a considerable amount of heat when a store manager called 911 on two African-American customers, over use of the store’s public bathroom.

Then-CEO Howard Schultz took immediate action to quell the backlash, partly by requiring all employees to undergo training. He also announced that anyone, customer or not, can use the bathrooms at Starbucks.

Actually, not all Starbucks stores have public bathrooms. However, that’s a moot point. Schultz’s quick action drew an overwhelming wave of favorable publicity, and the crisis subsided.

Schultz’s potential bid for president set off another surge of protest from the left, but there may be no quick solution this time.

Democrats are already rallying the troops to defeat President Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The primary season is off to a rough-and-tumble start, but the aim is to propel a single, strong candidate into the General Election.

However, instead of piling into the Democratic primary, Schultz has made it clear that he intends to run as an independent.

Without digging too deeply into the political weeds, it’s a fair guess that third-party candidate with a left-leaning reputation would in effect hand the election over to President Trump for another four years.

That’s why people are upset.

When boycotts work, part 1.

TriplePundit has been following boycotts since the runup to the 2016 presidential election.

The pattern that emerges is that consumer boycotts rarely work, though they can be effective against brands that are already suffering reputation issues.

That doesn’t bode well for Starbucks boycotters, considering the brand’s strong record on CSR issues.

On the other hand, Schultz’s short-lived and rocky tenure as owner of the Seattle SuperSonics could give the boycotters a point of leverage.

The argument in favor of Schultz as a presidential candidate from the left rests on the idea that he would run the country like he ran Starbucks, CSR and all.

The SuperSonics venture presents almost the polar opposite of that picture, with serious missteps all along the way from employee relations to public relations and civic responsibility.

As news of that debacle circulates, it may also revive bitter memories of local coffee houses going out of business as Starbucks expanded, nailing down key locations.

In other words, Starbucks’s carefully cultivated brand seems strong now, but there are areas in which it is exposed to risk.

When boycotts work, part 2.

By throwing a monkey wrench into the 2020 election cycle, Schultz also risks alienating his customer base — including journalists, reporters, activists and students.

Talking Points Memo editor and publisher Josh Marshall provides a representative sample of the view from the left:

“Myself, considering what we’ve seen over the last 72 hours, I’d be hard pressed to go into a Starbucks. I just think he’s [Schultz is] too big of a jerk, courting too much potential damage for the country for reasons that don’t seem to go beyond ego.”

Marshall also notes that Starbucks is essentially an urban brand, putting it precisely in the place where coffee drinkers have many other options among the rising crop of boutique coffee houses.

Competition from Dunkin’ Donuts and MacDonald’s is another factor to consider.

Yet another element is the emergence of two grassroots boycott platforms, Grab Your Wallet and Sleeping Giants.

These platforms have been effective because they focus on getting businesses to boycott bad actors — in other words, a business-to-business boycott. Grab Your Wallet’s initial aim was to stop retailers from carrying Trump-branded products, and Sleeping Giants targeted advertisers on the Breitbart media website.

Both campaigns have since grown into powerful organizing forces. It would take just one step to transfer their business-to-business model into a conventional consumer boycott, one with a decent chance of success.

The bottom line: If Howard Schultz throws his hat into the ring as an Independent candidate for president, look for Fox News to celebrate, not excoriate, next year’s iteration of the Starbucks holiday cup.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development/Flickr

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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