“Dump Starbucks” Campaign Proves it Again: Don’t Politicize Your Brand!

6 April, 2012 at 7:59 am

For the life of me, I can’t understand why some companies make the choice to politicize their brand.

The most notorious example to come to mind in the past 12 months is Susan G. Komen, with their ill-advised move to de-fund, then re-fund Planned Parenthood in a way that made it appear to be a political decision thinly veiled as a policy change. It’s been talked about ad nauseam in every PR and communications forum on the Internet, so I won’t re-hash it.  At the time, though, I was one of the few people in my circle of (mostly Catholic and pro-life) family and friends to squarely criticize the decision and the way it was handled. It doesn’t matter what you think about abortion – the situation was handled terribly by the organization, and it alienated both sides of the most polarizing issue in the nation. It was quite possibly brand suicide. If Komen survives, it will be because people have short memories.

Slightly less damaging, but still dangerous, is the recent move by Starbucks to officially support gay marriage. While the move has certainly garnered support – to the tune of 650,000 thank yous – Starbucks has tens of millions of customers worldwide, and not everyone is on the same page. The Dump Starbucks campaign has been ramping up in an attempt to foment an effective boycott against the coffee titan.

Once again, what you or I think of gay marriage isn’t at the heart of this issue – good business practice is. You can and should have informed opinions about the most hotly debated issues of the day, but no matter how you slice it, politicizing your brand spells danger. When I donate money to a cancer research foundation, I want to know that my money is stopping cancer. I don’t want to worry about abortion, one way or the other. I don’t even want to think about it, because it stigmatizes my unrelated behavior of trying to fund cancer research. When I want to buy a cup of coffee, I want to buy the best damn cup of coffee I can lay hands on, not worry about what side of a hot button political issue I’m supporting. I’m not looking to join a movement, I just want some caffeine.

As your customer, I want to buy your products or services, NOT your ideology.

I can’t make this clear enough. Brands that take this approach may feel like they’re doing the right thing, but all they’re really doing is hurting their business. I can’t think of a friend or family member who doesn’t go to Starbucks at least some of the time. And because I know the religious and political affiliation of most of my friends and family, I know that this move will significantly impact their willingness to give money to Starbucks again. If I were a business owner, I couldn’t imagine making a decision that I knew would alienate a large portion of my customer base. It would be a purely selfish move, and it would mean that my personal political preferences are more important to me than the satisfaction of my customers. People get rightfully upset when companies get greedy, raising prices and keeping profits and offering poor customer service. How is this different? It’s a sort of intellectual greed, a means of saying to the consumer, “It’s not about you and your experience of our brand – it’s about us and what we want.” 

It doesn’t matter if you’re so successful that you have money to burn. If you no longer need to keep your customers happy, your business is on its way out. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not five years from now, but eventually, someone else who cares more about their customers than you do is going to take your place.

I can’t emphasize this enough. I started as a writer who covered the taboo issues of religion and politics. My writings are on the Internet for anyone to find. If anyone chooses not to do business with me because of something that I’ve written in the past, that’s certainly within their rights to do. But as I continue to build my credibility as a professional, I’m leaving my most polemical writings behind. They do nothing to help me be the best communications strategist I can be. If you want to do business with me, it doesn’t matter what I believe, it matters how well I perform. End of story.

That’s smart business. Something that both Susan G. Komen and Starbucks appear to have lost sight of.