Campaign: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was vexed by the U.S. federal government shutdown, the pending debt and default crisis and waning consumer confidence. His answer? Free coffee. From Wednesday 9 October to Friday 11 October, Starbucks gave away free tall brewed coffees to any U.S. customer who buys another person a drink from the ubiquitous outlet. Schultz has backed up this promotion with a petition in-store, in newspapers and online asking the federal government to reverse their default decision.
According to a statement, Schultz, a registered Democrat, said he was acting because of a “sad and striking realization that the American people have no platform with which to voice their frustration and outrage” over the shutdown, which began when Democrats rejected Republican efforts to undercut the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare.
Starbucks’ “voluntary, non-partisan” petition implored Congress and the White House to reopen the government, square U.S. debts and pass a long-term bipartisan budget deal by year-end.
“In times like these, small acts of civility like these make a big difference,” reads the Come Together page on the Starbucks website. “We’re hoping this small motivation will encourage you to be the spark of connection that helps bring us all a little closer at a time when showing our unity is so important… #payitforward—and let’s see what can happen.”
Schultz also claimed to have spoken with leaders of half of the 30 companies listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. He said: “Every CEO I spoke to shared my concern and my outrage about the situation in Washington.”
Contagious, FleishmanHillard’s Wechsler Weigh In
Contagious: Offer anything for free and you attract people in-store. So through this promotion, Howard Schultz nets potential signatures for his petition, PR for Starbucks and an audience for his disgruntlement. And remember that if people come through the door to claim their free coffee, they might just pick up a muffin, or their lunch while doing so, potentially bolstering the bottom line at Starbucks.
However, while many Americans who take advantage of their free tall brew may be thinking kindly towards Starbucks, how many will properly absorb the political motive behind it? The #ComeTogether and #payitforward hashtags suggest that most are seeing it as a “nice” gesture and aren’t joining the dots.
The question at the heart of it is this: Is Come Together a buy-one, get-one-free promotion masquerading as Howard Schultz attempting to get America involved in a giant group hug at a difficult time for the country? Or is it purely a PR effort that has news-jacked a tense week in U.S. politics to drive footfall?
It is also worth pointing out a difference in tone from one side of the Atlantic to the other. The Come Together page on the Starbucks website states: “If actions define us let’s be known by acts of kindness.” By contrast, Starbucks incurred the wrath of Brits last year when it transpired that it hadn’t been paying a “meaningful amount” of Corporation Tax. It took six months for it to shell out £5m in June 2013.
Pat Wechsler: I am the editor of TRUE and a journalist by trade. I don’t usually weigh in alongside the heavy-duty creative types from FleishmanHillard and Contagious who normally fill this column. But the Starbucks promotion inspired me, as did the Contagious criticism of it.
Britain (or at least Contagious) is apparently still angry over Starbucks’ failure to pay what that nation considered an adequate amount of taxes over the past several years. And clearly this underpayment is an instance in which Starbucks has failed to live up to its customers’ expectations for the company to act in the public good, even if it broke no laws. But I would remind those across the pond and the U.S. Congress that when corporations don’t pay what they should in taxes it is more often than not because the government has so obligingly provided them with perfectly legal loopholes for tax avoidance.
Howard Schultz’s petition on the government shutdown was clever—and on target, even if it sounded hypocritical to Contagious. First, from a more crass marketing perspective, it was a giveaway—as Contagious so correctly notes, offer anything for free and you increase traffic and potential for additional business. But much more importantly, it provided an opportunity to speak to an issue that the majority of Americans actually understood all too well—and about which, like Schultz and many CEOs interviewed during the days of the shutdown, were extremely angry and frustrated. Almost any connection between doing business and doing good can be seen through a cynical lens, but in this case Schultz seemed sincere. He also took a risk, as anyone does when taking a stand on a volatile political issue. Admittedly, Schultz probably knew his customers well enough to predict on which side of the issue they would fall; the same could have been said about Starbucks’ stand in favor of gay marriage. And that’s why this is such a smart campaign: It’s not because Starbucks is pandering to its customers; it’s because people are Starbucks customers because of what the company stands for. Starbucks knows that and tries—mostly successfully—to live up to it.