Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Now Amazon: Why Controversy is Bad for Business

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For the life of me, I don’t understand why companies – or prominent figures on their leadership teams – publicly engage in financing or commenting on controversial topics that don’t relate at all to the products and services they’re selling.

Before the recent furor over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy’s statements supporting traditional marriage, Starbucks made headlines by supporting same-sex marriage, sparking a protest called “Dump Starbucks” and damaging the brand.

At the time, I wrote:

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.”

I understand that both Howard Schultz and Dan Cathy felt they had to say what they believed in, but it wasn’t particularly smart business. If people want to support or boycott Starbucks because of it, I get it. If they want to boycott or support Chick-fil-A because of it, that’s their right. But why invite that type of trouble to your business? You’d be hard pressed to argue that either Starbucks or Chick-fil-A gained more customers than they lost by jumping into the fray.

Chick-fil-A company spokesman Don Perry (who, at the time of this writing has just been reported to have passed away) apparently agreed that the best approach to the topic is to leave it alone:

The quick-service chicken chain said Thursday in a statement that “going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”

For the company, leaving the policy debate means “not proactively being engaged in the dialogue” on gay marriage, spokesman Don Perry wrote in an email. Perry did not respond to questions on whether the company would stop donating to causes that oppose gay marriage.

[snip]

Chick-fil-A said in the statement that the elder Cathy founded the company with the intent to apply “biblically-based principles to managing his business.”

“For example, we believe that closing on Sundays, operating debt-free and devoting a percentage of our profits back to our communities are what make us a stronger company and Chick-fil-A family,” it said.

“The Chick-fil-A culture and service tradition in our restaurants is to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect – regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender,” the company added.

But good business practice – or prudence, if you prefer – isn’t slowing this train down. This afternoon, it’s being reported that Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, is donating $2.5 million of his own personal funds to support gay marriage efforts in Washington State. Writes Jena McGregor of the Washington Post blog:

It’s too early to tell whether Bezos’ massive gift will have repercussions with customers who are opponents of the issue. Will they stop ordering books and toys from the world’s largest online retailer, as some customers have threatened to do with Chick-fil-A’s sandwiches? Will groups against gay marriage protest the company’s decision, as they did when Starbucks spoke out on its position? Will Mike Huckabee start a “Boycott Amazon.com Day”? Who knows.

I don’t know about you, but I wish companies would focus on the business at hand and not on issues that divide their customer base. Organizations interested in corporate responsibility have plenty of non-controversial options available if they want to give money to charity or support a cause. I want to be able to spend my money where I get the best products and services for the greatest value, not have to constantly assess whether or not the company providing them is aligned with my values.

Sell me coffee. Sell me chicken. Sell me books. But as a customer, leave me out of issues that keep me from giving you my money. It’s better for all of us that way.

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35 thoughts on “Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Now Amazon: Why Controversy is Bad for Business

  1. Steve Friederang says:

    I do know they treat many many small businesses like garbage. We will support any competitor we can and have stopped shopping on Amazon since, for no reason, Amazon wouldn’t allow us to start selling on their site. They have automated from a position Hitler would have enjoyed — the Nazi’s of the internet. They remind you in an automated message that they don’t have to even grace you with an explanation as to why they won’t allow you to sell.

    If price is the only thing important in business, no one with character would be in business. Amazon, much like WalMart are mostly sales agents for China. My company designgs and manufactures strictly in America. Look carefully though at what is destroying American companies — a combination of higher prices due to higher labor and poor service in design (US cars for example) and a poor attitude toward the very people who pay for their products and services. The solution would be forthcoming in a truly free market where smart Americans would improve their products and services to win customers. But companies like Amazon and WalMart who favor mass market warehousing and sales of mass produced of products with very high markups over small businesses run here in the States make an American comeback very very difficult. Check Sleer Support on Google to see how many thousands of small business owners have been kicked off Amazon for no reason — simply because they can. They hide behind a statement about bad service but many of those complaining never got a chance to sell and got caught in the purposeful or purposeless circle of non-returnable e-mails built into Amazon’s core software and corporate structure.

  2. [...] think it is admirable for an executive to take a stand on these issues, it turns out that it is not good for business. In the case of a CEO running a company, he or she is the leader of the [...]

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