Reading Between Latte Lines

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s bestselling new memoir about bringing the coffee giant back from the brink of collapse strikes a non-partisan tone. Little of the Brooklyn-raised business man’s blue-ish past is on display here. He says nothing about latte liberals or cappuccino conservatives or even macchiato moderates. He gently applauds Barack Obama’s election hailing it is a moment of racial progress, not as a repudiation of the Iraq war or failed conservative policies. He doesn’t discuss the President’s health care initiative or his attempts to stimulate the economy.

Nor does he grapple with several recent moments when Starbucks got pulled into the political crosshairs like when ill-informed rumor mongers in the Middle East charged the company with aiding Israeli defense forces or when pistol-packing coffee drinkers tried to draw Starbucks into the gun control debate. Schultz brews up a product in his book, Onward, much like his brand these days, aimed at the solid middle of the mainstream. The book is kind of like a vanilla latte–it offends no one–unless of course you are put off by business titans trying to sound the average guy in a Starbucks line.

Read another way, though, Schultz’s book can be seen as a deeply political, even troubling, treatise on the current state of civic life and political engagement in America. In the preface to Onward, the rock star CEO, as a cable show called him one time, contends that in recent years, “a seismic shift in consumer behavior was under way, and people became not just more cost conscious, but also more environmentally minded, and ethically driven. Customers were holding the companies they did business with–including Starbucks–to higher standards.” (p. xiv) Later on, he remarks, reflecting on a conversation he had with rock star and famed go-gooder, Bono, “People want to do business with companies they respect and trust, especially in the current climate.” (p. 200)

Schultz adds another revealing clue to what’s happening in the larger political realm as he discusses one of what he calls Starbucks’ “courageous” moves that led the firm back to profitability. In the run up to the 2008 election, Schultz lamented that only 54% of Americans “cared enough”–his words–about the state of things to vote. Hoping to change this–in a nonpartisan way of course–he decided that Starbucks would offer a free tall, meaning small, cup of drip coffee to anyone who came into one of its 11,000 plus U.S. stores on Election Day and said that they had voted. When the ballots were tallied, it turned out that 62% of eligible voters participated in the election and 2 million of them went to Starbucks for a coffee that day. (Of course, these are rough numbers, and at the last minute, the Federal Elections Commissions ruled that Starbucks couldn’t create an incentive for people to vote, so anyone who asked for a cup of coffee got one.) Still, Schultz declares in Onward, that this was a “seminal day” for his company (p.215) as a “sense of community enveloped the stores.” (p.216)

When Schultz’s seemingly contradictory statements about people looking for socially responsible companies and not caring enough to vote without some liquid incentive are lined up next to each other, we get a clearer sense of the state of current American politics. Social commentators, like Harvard sociology professor and author of the new classic Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, have talked about how Americans have lost faith in their political institutions. That’s the turn-out issue. But many people haven’t stopped looking for solutions to big problems. As Schultz notes, and numerous polls back him up on this, more and more Americans want a cleaner environment and better treatment for the people who grow and serve their food. Yet because of their dwindling faith in politicians and political institutions, they have, in a way, outscoured their politics. In those long ago days of the New Deal and Great Society, consumer citizens looked to the government to solve pressing problems. Not any more.

As Schultz’s book implies, many of us now express our politics principally through consumption. In other words, we look to corporations to do what we used to expect the government to handle. This, of course, presents companies like Starbucks with new challenges and new marketing opportunities. (Schlutz, though, would call this doing the right thing.) If a brand can offer, or credibly say it offers, a solution to the big problems people care about the most, it can win and retain customers in an intensely competitive market where there is little product differentiation between firms, like the U.S. coffee market. If it wants a larger share of that market, though, it has to present its solutions as non-partisan, because partisanship, except in the country’s most faithful Red and Blue corners, is probably the most discredited stance in our current political moment.

Schultz is right. There has been a seismic change. Even as talking heads chatter away from morning to night on Fox and MSNBC, the center of political gravity in the U.S. has shifted from the electoral realm to the buying realm. In this arena, politics, not surprisingly, have become by design easier and less contentious. What company wants to alienate a segment of the market right off the bat? Why would any large firm sell divisive politics? Even as it enters politics, why would it call what it does politics? It is doing right.

Like everything, though, there are costs associated with the change to corporate generated non-partisan politics. While informed buying can lighten carbon footprints and provide relief to farmers in the developing world, this form of civic engagement can also make more genuine politics fade away. When a company like Starbucks takes up political action, it tells its customers that they are making a crucial difference through their buying choices. Essentially its allows customers, and customers allow themselves, to wash their hands of the problem with a single guilt-free purchase. Buy a shirt and help AIDS-besieged Africa. Done. Buy a vanilla latte and save the planet. (It says that on the cups.) Done.

Clearly, the idea of lending a hand has value, and keeps customers coming back for more khakis and lattes. But this isn’t something companies like Schultz’s Starbucks want to talk about too much, even in ceo memoirs (Starbucks, by the way, doesn’t capitalize this abbreviation, so that’s the way Schultz writes it throughout the book), because if they do, buyers might see, for instance, that purchasing a latte served in a to-go cup made from recycled material that isn’t itself recyclable, isn’t really a solution to the problem, it is a cover up. It is a band-aide that doesn’t sting. But it is also, as Howard Schultz suggests between the lines, good business in this de-politicized political moment.