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. Anon says:

    Went out of my way for a Chick-fil-A yesterday! Drove over an hour to the nearest restaurant. It was my first time at Chick-fil-A and I have to say that it was delicious! One of the best, if not THE best, chicken sandwich that I have ever tasted. Brought the family, too. We all loved the food. Place was packed- we could not even sit inside the restaurant because no tables were available. Very diverse customers: black, white, latino, asian, young, old, families, military. I wish I could get there on Wednesday, but at least I got there to support them yesterday.

  2. Manfred says:

    You forgot to mention General Mills which manufactures, among other products, Cheerios. Your points are excellent Steve, but in normal times. This nation is in a vast culture war and companies, as well as the government, are taking sides. The Church is the beacon on one side and this administration is the aggressor on the other. When I see companies or citizen groups take my side, I certainly no longer feel alone.

  3. Guest says:

    I have been writing to many retail corporations that have aligned themselves with various causes for almost two years with the same plea – “Please stick to marketing your products without also marketing an ideology, left or right, to the consumer. I do not want to buy an ideology, I want to simply buy a product”.

    You would think companies would opt-out of the culture war and realize the above strategy is good business. Perhaps if more people would send an opt-out message to a corporation’s marketing department they will get the hint.

  4. Terry says:

    You’re kidding yourself, brother. If you think businesses will have the luxury of staying out of the coming cultural conflageration you are of the most naive category. Are you kidding? Keep your deepest held convictions quiet to make a buck? I had to re-check the “Catholic” on this website. Time’s coming when businesses will be, in one way or another, made to declare where they stand on this and related issues. Kind of a commercial Corde Ecclesiae. These are not nice people. I think you need a new organization to write for.

  5. Phil says:

    Let’s ask the Christian owner of a restaurant chain that isn’t open on Sunday his view
    on gay marriage and act surprised and outraged when we don’t like his answer.

  6. teej says:

    Profit shouldn’t be the only consideration that a business depends on to make decisions. If the owners of Starbucks, or any other company, are that morally invested in a specific issue that they are willing to “damage” their brand as a result of their support or opposition to it, good for them. Business/the economy/financial institutions do not function in a moral vacuum or somehow abstracted from the broader culture within which they exist. They shouldn’t be expected to. If it makes shopping for things more difficult, too bad.

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