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More on Social Activism and Starbucks

Recently, we’ve commented on brands and retailers taking a lead as social activists.  Starbucks has used its reach – 8,000 US Stores with 175,000 employees – to voice its position on social and political views multiple times.  The company has encouraged conversations about race and gay marriage.  After the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Starbucks took a full-page ad in the New York Times referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking “shall we overcome?” And in March, the company announced it had achieved equal pay for women, a milestone in American society.

The question of the moment is whether the arrest of two African American gentlemen in a Philadelphia store will damage Starbuck’s reputation – and business.  CEO Kevin Johnson has taken actions that would normally quell a public relations disaster;  speaking with the gentlemen who were arrested, community leaders, and announcing a chain-wide store closure to implement racial bias training.  Yet protests at Starbucks stores are spreading from Philadelphia to other locations, with 12 planned in Chicago tomorrow.

But we don’t believe this will have an impact on Starbucks in the long-term.

First, I find it hard to believe that a pregnant woman who wished to use a Starbucks bathroom would be prevented from doing so, and that if she chose to rest, neither the store manager nor the police would find a reason to arrest her.  In other words, a good dose of common sense never hurt anyone, and it doesn’t take a genius to notice that an individual’s lack of common sense reveals at least a bias, if not discrimination, in the viral video of Philadelphia.

And second, because of Starbucks’ history, the company will weather the storm.  The company’s reaction should retain trust with a generation of consumers who view some of their purchasing choices as a reflection of their core principles.  And because individuals at a corporation that has prided itself on taking progressive stances have faltered, the damage done by racial bias will be increasingly recognized.

By David Weiss


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