Starbucks is good at selling coffee, but can it sell tolerance?

Starbucks on Wednesday launched a multimedia series of programs about progress in American communities to counter the political rhetoric that’s dividing the country.

Ted S. Warren/AP
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks on March 18, 2015 in front of a photo of the coffee company's first store at Seattle's Pike Place Market during Starbucks' annual shareholders meeting in Seattle.

Starbucks on Wednesday launched a multimedia series of programs about progress in American communities to counter the political rhetoric that’s dividing the country, the company says.

Called “Upstanders,” the series will feature ten stories “about ordinary people doing extraordinary things to create positive change in their communities,” the coffee company says in an announcement. Howard Schultz, the company’s CEO wrote and produced the stories – podcasts, videos, and text – with  Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Starbucks executive producer and a former senior editor of The Washington Post.

Upstanders focuses on a wide range of popular and controversial issues, like the plight of Muslims in America, incarceration, homelessness,  and college affordability. The stories – which don’t reference Starbucks or its products – will be available on the company’s website and mobile app, on Medium, Mic.com and Upworthy.

According to Business Insider, the series is intended to be nonpartisan. "This is about the human spirit and what we think is so important to the country," Schultz, a proponent of corporate responsibility, told the Insider.

But while the series may not be overtly political, Schultz is. Besides launching the Upstanders on Wednesday, he also endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. He’s openly a Democrat and has donated to party politicians over the years, as CNN reports. Schultz has often and unabashedly used his business platform to advocate for social and political issues he cares about, such as gay rights and race relations. He once famously told a Starbucks shareholder who complained that the company was losing customers over its support for gay marriage: “You can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”

This came after he pointed out that the company had provided an unprecedented shareholder return. “I don’t know how many things you invest in,” Schultz said to the shareholder at the company’s annual meeting in Seattle in 2013, “but I would suspect not many things, companies, products, or investments have returned 38 percent over the last 12 months."

Schultz’s global coffee business to this day doesn’t appear to be suffering as a result of his activism. The company’s sales and revenues are still growing, and there's some evidence suggesting its politics may be helping more than hurting.

In a small online survey of 613 adults in 2014, Global Strategy Group, a public relations firm, found that a majority of responders – 56 percent – thought it is appropriate for companies to stand up for causes, regardless of whether or not they were controversial.

Others have supported these findings. Melissa D. Dodd, an advertising professor from the University of Central Florida, found in her research that Americans – particularly Millennials – are 8 percent more likely to buy from a company that shares their values, and equally less likely to buy from a company that doesn't.

"In other words," Prof. Dodd wrote in Forbes last year, "it’s no longer just about whether a person likes the product or service, it's about whether they like the company's stance on certain pertinent issues."

This new consciousness is reflected not just in small studies, but in corporate actions lately.

Companies including PayPal, Target, and Lionsgate publicly opposed North Carolina’s recently passed law requiring transgender people to use bathrooms and lockers that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. PayPal went so far as to drop its plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte, a $3.6 million investment loss for the city and state.

"This decision reflects PayPal's deepest values and our strong belief that every person has the right to be treated equally, and with dignity and respect," said Dan Schulman, president and chief executive officer of PayPal, in an announcement in April.

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