In swipe at Trump's travel ban, Starbucks sells its brand of social responsibility

The mission of the world's largest coffee chain has long included its social values. But its opposition to President Trump's travel ban comes as other corporations are taking political stands, too. 

Richard Drew/AP
Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz speaks during the Starbucks 2016 Investor Day meeting in New York. Starbucks says it will hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, a response to President Donald Trump's indefinite suspension of Syrian refugees and temporary travel bans that apply to six other Muslim-majority nations.

Starbucks informed its employees on Monday it will offer them and their families free legal services on immigration issues, one of a number of actions the world’s largest coffee chain has taken in response to President Trump’s travel ban.

The letter Starbucks sent to staff came a day after its chief executive, Howard Schultz, denounced Mr. Trump’s executive order, which suspended the US refugee program and barred travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. In a blog post, Mr. Schultz expressed his “confusion, surprise, and, opposition” to the order, a feeling he said he shared with many others at the company.

Long before Trump reached the White House, Starbucks established a reputation for selling its vision of social responsibility along with its lattes. But the coffee giant’s latest actions come as other corporations are starting to do the same.

Partisan politics have been inserting themselves into corporate branding for some time, linking a Chick-fil-A sandwich to religious freedom and a blended Frappuccino to gun control. But now, companies are starting to seek out these social and political issues on their own, from immigration, to race and gender, to same-sex marriage, using their positions to reinforce branding and differentiate themselves in a global market with thousands of competitors.

“I am surprised to see companies jumping into social issues on their own terms,” says Mark Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “It’s one thing if you get boycotted – it’s a group out there that doesn’t like what you’re doing. You didn’t want that attention, but you got it anyway.”

It’s another thing, though, if your CEO writes a politically charged blog post or you pay for a TV ad with not-so subtle social commentary. “You’re inviting controversy there,” adds Dr. Smith. “That's something corporations involved in consumer products didn’t normally want.”

Starbucks will offer legal services through an agreement it struck up with Ernst & Young and the firm’s Immigration Advisor Program, Starbucks said in the letter it sent to staff Monday.

“This service will allow all partners and family members to help navigate immigration issues and get answers in these uncertain times,” reads the letter, according to The Street. “If you are a partner or a family member and you have questions about immigration, travel restrictions, or how the executive order and any related actions may otherwise impact you, please access this legal support and guidance from the Global Mobility and Immigration team.”

The letter was delivered to staff a day after Mr. Schultz lambasted Trump’s executive order and made a pledge.

“We are living in an unprecedented time, one in which we are witness to the conscience of our country, and the promise of the American Dream, being called into question,” said Schultz in a blog post and a letter to staff. "I write to you today with deep concern, a heavy heart and a resolute promise.”

That promise is to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years across the 75 countries where Starbucks operates. The chain plans to first hire refugees in the United States, focusing on those who have served with US forces as interpreters and supported military personnel in other ways.

The plan, an indirect swipe at Trump’s executive order, was met with backlash on social media. Numerous Twitter users started to use #BoycottStarbucks to urge customers to stay away from its stores, according to Reuters. But Eunkyu Lee, a marketing professor at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, says the criticism was worth the reward.

“Some people may not like it, but in the long run I think this is more of a personality statement rather than a political statement,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I think it is a very powerful way of differentiating your company and your brand from Dunkin' Donuts or the thousands of other coffee vendors.”  

Indeed, Starbucks’ mission statement, “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” refers to coffee only indirectly.  

The values it emphasizes include “creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome,” and “acting with courage, challenging the status quo, and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.”

Starbucks has acted on this mission before, chiming in on issues from job growth, to partisan cooperation, to gun control. But it hasn’t always found success. Stores became battle grounds for the open-carry debate, until Schultz requested in 2013 that gun owners leave their firearms at home. In 2015, Starbucks also put a quick end to its "Race Together" campaign, which encouraged customers to converse with their baristas about race relations.

But its embrace of controversial social and political issues comes as a subtle shift is underway in the consumer world. Business and politics have long been inextricably linked, with groups boycotting products on social grounds. For four decades, the United Farm Workers of America boycotted California table grapes, only ending the protracted protest in 2000. The Southern Baptist Convention also waged an eight-year boycott of Disney for the company extending benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees.

But companies have slowly become more accepting, or even enthusiastic, about their brand identity being associated with divisive social issues, from same-sex marriage, to breastfeeding in public, to gun rights. In 2012, Chik-fil-A seemed to embrace its Southern-style chicken sandwich being associated with religious freedom and free speech, after chief executive Dan Cathy told a Baptist newspaper he is “guilty as charged” for supporting traditional marriage between a man and a woman. Starbucks, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Panera Bread eventually stopped allowing customers to bring in guns, leading some to associate them with the gun control movement.

Now, some businesses are actually inviting these issues, even if it comes with a cost. Kellogg recently joined other companies in pulling advertising from the controversial website Breitbart News amid concerns about hate speech, according to The Wall Street Journal. After Breitbart then launched a #DumpKellogs campaign and wrote articles critical of the company, the cereal maker’s shares underperformed General Mills and Post Holdings by 4.4 and 11.5 points, respectively.

The Super Bowl is perhaps the latest example. Commercials that aired during the nationally televised event had not-so-subtle political undertones about immigration – although what exactly some of those ad were vouching for may be up for debate.

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