Health Care Reform, Tax Fairness, The War in Afghanistan, Occupy Wall Street, same-sex marriage. These are just a few of the hottest and heated issues that presently divide our nation. While individuals look to their political, religious, cultural, and personal beliefs to take a stance on the matters, many companies stay quiet and impartial – fearful to not outrage consumers. But there’s one major company that doesn’t seem to shy away from the controversy, and in fact, welcomes it.
From gay marriage to gun rights, Starbucks has staked its image on some very public, and potentially risky, social-political positions. And thanks to social media, consumers can interact with brands in the same ways they interact with people. This raises an important question: how does a multi-national mega-brand, responsible for crafting a consistent image all over the globe, manage to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of hot-button cultural and political issues in the places where it does business?
For most big brands, the answer is simple – refrain from alienating consumers by simply refusing to engage in potentially controversial dialogue.
But as big brands come to play greater and greater roles in shaping culture, the positions they’ve come to occupy as arbiters of tastes, trends and, yes, values, take on larger significance. Both Microsoft and Amazon have also joined forces to support the legalization of gay marriage. The ubiquity of these mega-brands – both online and off – amplifies their perceived cultural authority. And in a society in which the marketplace encroaches further and further into our personal lives and is woven ever more tightly into the national fabric, the brands we use the most start to resemble significant cultural battlegrounds themselves – with boycotts, anti-boycotts and threats of boycotts becoming de rigueur.
So a company’s positions on the controversial questions of the day are inherently fraught; they have the potential to alter – or even sever – relationships with consumers. But that’s partly what makes Starbucks – and its Facebook presence – so interesting.
With 29.5 million Likes, the Starbucks Facebook Page is a large forum indeed. Besides the usual corporate fare – product highlights, promos, special deals, and innocuous engagement posts (“Coffee and snow go together like _____ and _____.”) – the Starbucks Facebook Page is also place for spirited discussion not only of its products, but also of the company’s positions.
The last few months have been particularly active for political speech on the Starbucks Page because of two controversial topics: Starbucks’ explicit endorsement of the marriage equality bill in its home state of Washington, and a boycott organized by the National Gun Victim’s Action Council to protest Starbucks’ policy of allowing customers to carry guns in stores when and where it’s legal.
On January 25, Starbucks posted on its Facebook Page, “We are proud to support Marriage Equality legislation in the Washington State Legislature,” with a link to an article in the Seattle Times. It was followed the same day with: “MARRIAGE=ONE MAN + ONE WOMAN FOREVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! God made Adam and EVE not Adam and STEVE!” from a user named Rebecca Curry DeMent of Goshen, Indiana. February 6 and 7 highlight posts from two pro-gay marriage groups urging, in one case for people to declare: “I’m going to Starbucks BECAUSE they support the right thing,” and in the other, to sign a “thank you letter” to Starbucks.
Then, later in the month, an anti-gun violence group revived earlier attempts to pressure Starbucks to ban guns in its stores, by calling for a boycott on Valentine’s Day. One user’s comment from February 16 announced: “Goodbye starbucks…..over roasted coffee and supporters of criminals with guns..not to mention over priced. You are going the way of BOA…down!!” This post is followed days later by a highlighted comment from another user praising Starbucks: “thank you for standing up for the right to bear arms, and not giving in to the anti-gun/anti-freedom pressure.”
Whereas other brands might police comments not just for offensive statements but also for negative or antagonistic reactions to a brand’s product, service or corporate positions, Starbucks allows this speech to continue unfettered, even when it rises to the level of being present on their Timeline Highlights.
It’s a nod to the long tradition of diligently publishing incensed “letters to the editor” which were always useful in reminding us just how divergent people’s views could be. Of course, today, letters to the editor seem almost quaint, thanks in no small measure to Facebook itself. It’s on Facebook that every urge, peeve, dispute and rant (as well like, love and fancy) can be instantly announced. Which is why it’s increasingly absurd that so many companies still fear the kind of open dialog that Facebook encourages. Companies seem to be desperate to build online audiences while at the same time eschewing the whole point of free exchange.
And that might just be what sets Starbucks apart in the online space: Starbucks doesn’t seem to fear the debate that social media fosters.
So while some companies whitewash their Facebook Pages with a vigilance that would make the North Korean’s envious, Starbucks appears to allow users to speak their minds – while still reserving the right to remove comments that are hateful or outright inflammatory.
It’s a strategy that’s not without risk – and needlessly courting controversy isn’t usually in companies’ best long term interests. But for Starbucks, allowing open dissent on its Facebook Page represents a compelling – and essential – form of consumer engagement that most companies still don’t have the stomach for.
But that might be changing. Because consumers’ emerging awareness that their clothes, food, computers, and coffee actually come from somewhere, and that the processes of delivering those things are fraught with all kinds of ethical and political questions, means that brands will have to increasingly engage with consumers over these questions. It’s the internet, in large part, which has helped provoke this consumer awakening – and it’s social media that will keep the debate going. Companies would do well to understand that real consumer engagement might mean more than just funny tweets and exclusive bargains.