Politico recently reported Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s 2020 ambitions are giving the coffee chain jitters. While there are plenty of good reasons to believe they’re right, we disagree on the “why”.
The conventional wisdom:
Wall Street analysts are wary, and company leadership is nervous, about the effect a Democratic bid by its chairman emeritus could have on Starbucks’ business, given its bipartisan customer base. If that weren’t discouraging enough, Schultz’s retirement last month set off a boomlet of pundits urging him not to run. And his recent appearance at a private gathering of political donors convened by Mitt Romney inspired indifference.
First, the notion that Starbucks top-brass tilt the brand in a progressive direction will come as no shock to Republican voters. An entirely plausible “worst case scenario” is that Trump declares decrees a boycott on Starbucks. But Starbucks Republicans are already Trump’s weakest supporters and unlikely to change their daily coffee habit in spite of his behests.
No, the reason Howard Schultz and Starbucks should be worried is that his candidacy is seriously endangered if his message doesn’t drastically change.
Schultz is trapped in “The Gray”, a Goldilocks approach responsible for producing messaging that’s “not too hot, not too cold, just right.” Unfortunately, in a charged environment where both voters and customers behave as either advocates or adversaries, this approach can prove disastrous.
It’s easy to see how Schultz’s advisors ended up there. They reason voters are ready for a counterbalance to Trump, in both style and substance. Someone who has real business experience, “common sense” solutions good for all Americans, and the temperament that should be required for leading an enterprise as large as a country.
However, in a clear attempt to test the Presidential waters, Schultz’s 27-minute interview with CNBC is full of problematic messages:
“We haven’t had a balanced budget since President Clinton. Think about that. And we talk about immigration. Ronald Reagan in 1986 passed an immigration bill as a Republican president. So why can’t we come together, move the ideology out, and do what’s in the interest of the American people? 70% of the American people want a good immigration policy. 70% of the American people want the kind of policy legislation that takes the guns of war out of the American people’s neighborhoods. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic party are going so far to the left, and I ask myself ‘how are we going to pay for all these things?’ Things like single-payer, or people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job. I don’t think that’s realistic.”
“Let’s take a centrist approach and get ideology out.”
The underlying thoughts behind these messages make sense in the boardroom, but they’re the kind of ideas that don’t survive first contact with voters.
Politicians throughout history – Lincoln and slavery, Churchill and capitulation – have communicated most effectively when they speak with clarity informed by values. Good values are aspirational, and have the power to unite everybody under a single banner. Paradoxically, good values also effectively define who is “in” and who is “out”.
Strongly held opinions, informed by strongly held values and beliefs, are the lifeblood of authenticity. Today, it’s all but guaranteed a “not too hot, not too cold, just right” message will fail to satisfy advocates while enraging adversaries.
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