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

Source: Flickr

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.


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 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.



  • tom

    They are not stupid, it’s something call “stand up and stand firm for God” and we will believe that whenever we follow God’s words and steps, he will guide us and lead with blessings. Look at In & Out and Chick-fil-A, they are one of the leading chain resturants in the US and they are both Christian chain resturants. It’s not all about business so you might think they are stupid or they don’t think but they know what’s best for them. They know God’s words and ways are more important than money.

  • Linda

    When it comes to JCP and Ellen, first, have you seen the commercials? She insulted women that present themselves as women! And I am not a member of the MM but the commercials upset me because SHE made it seem as degrading being a woman.

  • timothy

    Seems the author here completely missed the point. This isn’t a discussionn that is just limited to good business bad business. 2 mayors and 1 alderman have threatened to block a mr. Cathy owned franchise from operating in their city or ward. Why? Because mr. Cathy answered a question honestly to his christian convictions to a baptist newspaper reporter that he affirms marriage in the family sense between a man and womanas cocreators of new life in a hopefully unified and loving family. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what is wrong here.
    Catholics that are engaged and practicing are already aware of these kinds of secular threats to christian and any other kind of spiritual life through our bishops stance during a two week campaign to raise awareness called “fortnight for freedom”. Recommend everyone checks that out and what it entailed if they are interested. Thankyou for the time everyone. Peace be upon you.

  • Dexter Williams

    I think the states should put it on the ballot and let the people decide about the gay marriage issue. Oh yeah, 39 states have already done that and all 39 states voted it down, (including California). So who really cares what Amazon or Star Bucks thinks. WE KNOW what the people think….

  • Nathaniel

    I don’t know how human rights can be a political opinion. Denying same-sex couples the same benefits and rights as opposite-sex couples violates the very foundation of this country as a whole. Religious freedom aside, allowing a gay man to visit his partner in the hospital as a part of his “family” is a part of equalization for which we are fighting. We are not attempting to destroy the “sanctity” of anything, we are simply trying to gain the same rights as those afforded to straight couples. The separation of state and church in this country is called into serious question when the right to marry and receive the same governmental benefits is denied because “homosexuality is a sin” according to the bible. A country cannot make laws which cater to one particular religion and disregard the ideologies of other faiths. Atheism is a faith, and a belief that there is no GOD. But this faith is not drafting laws to prevent one or more groups from getting the same rights as everyone else in the country. The “sanctity of marriage” argument is ridiculous because there are plenty of ideas which violate the sanctity of marriage, but they are perfectly legal (divorce, for example). I think that supporting equal human rights is an important statement for anyone to make, and by supporting the ideas that allow equal human rights for all does not show that a company is giving a “political opinion” at all, it means that they support the ideas that humans have the same rights, no matter what their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or national origin. So let’s applaud the companies that say, “Yes, we believe in human rights”. As for the companies that oppose those values, educate them on the error they have made, and hope that they realize that supporting human rights does not mean they are supporting anything but the ability for everyone to play on the same level.

  • Love O.L.Alita

    By selecting Ellen DeGeneres as company spokesperson JC Penney proclaimed, in my opinion, that sexual perversion is the “cool, new norm”. Ellen is very much “out” of the closet. Yes, she is attractive, personable, likeable, but a cloud of militancy about her homosexuality precedes her. She beds women unabashedly. Blech!

    I want no part of the sacramentalization of sin.

    JC Penney’s products are cheap and shoddy anyway, so Ellen was just frosting on the fetid cake.



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