Brand Activism at Starbucks - A Tall Order?
In April 2017, Kevin Johnson took over the reigns as CEO of Starbucks, the iconic coffee giant. He faced a number of key decisions to keep the global retail giant competitive, but one in particular loomed large. Over the last few years, Johnson's predecessor, Howard Schultz, had increasingly used Starbucks as a progressive platform in an attempt to influence the world around its stores, whether he was aiming to smooth out race relations in the United States or support marriage equality. (Schultz was so vocal about these issues, in fact, that many people speculated he harbored secret political ambitions for his post-Starbucks career.) The case examines Schultz's memorable 2015 Race Together campaign and invites students to debate whether Johnson's work should be focused on (1) similar attempts to align Starbucks with progressive ideals and social causes, or (2) Starbucks' profitability and shareholder value alone. Were there certain times or circumstances where it was appropriate to engage in brand activism, and what impact might these initiatives have on brand integrity and the bottom line? In addition to inviting students to analyze the financial, branding, and employee- and customer-relations implications of social activism at Starbucks, the case also allows them to develop a framework for when and how brand activism might be appropriate in the future.