Starbucks, like Hillary Clinton, will never get What Happened

Starbucks is a really irritating corporate juggernaut. They not only grab your money, along with many prime street-corner locations in your town; they also charge for absolution. They want moral vindication, not just profit margins. Latest example? Their two Black customers rousted by cops in Philadelphia.

Their PR squads got on it immediately. It was "reprehensible," said the CEO in a "public letter" and video. That covers Rule 1 and 2: get "out in front of it" and have your top person do it. My Rule 1 and only: if you want to look authentic, then be authentic, don't employ transparent PR exercises.

I'm not against the apology or the half-day training session on "implicit bias" that they're holding -- probably involving even more well-paid experts -- "with input from groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People." (Though that's unreassuring: As Michael Che said, "First of all, NAACP, stop calling us 'colored people.' We picked a color a long time ago -- it's 'black', OK?")

What's annoying is the compulsive doses of self-congratulation. "I've spent the last few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team … learning what we did wrong …," said the CEO, as if it was all about him. Even that's insufficient praise. They need a Greek chorus of outside "professional" approval and usually get it.

"This move goes far beyond the playbook," of what a normal crisis response would be, said the boss of a crisis management firm. Does anyone else find that phrase disgusting? Crisis management firms are never called in to deal with, say, jobs disappearing or students falling into debt. It always means something uncomfortably human is getting in the way of corporate revenue flow. He wasn't admiring Starbucks' empathy or morality; it was the slickness of their operation.

Toronto had its own Starbucks jolt 20 years ago when they secretively bought up the lease from under a popular Bloor bistro, Dooney's. That was their standard M.O. everywhere and often evoked local protests, though Dooney's was the rare case where they had to back off. The PR BS flowed freely: full-page ads declaring they had no idea it was such a "beloved community institution," etc.

Starbucks' latest had the sound of Mark Zuckerberg saying robotically that Facebook is really about connecting humanity, as if he thought the idea up. Starbucks' "mission statement," whatever the hell that can mean, is "to inspire and nurture the human spirit … one cup and one neighbourhood at a time."

Sheesh. They take major credit for inventing "the third place," as if there'd been no pubs, bars, cafés, or coffee rows, in every small Saskatchewan town. C'mon guys, you can't corporatize what your species long ago perfected and claim the patent for it. It's that amour propre, taking charge again.

I think I prefer that old villain, Andrew Carnegie's straight tit-for-tat approach to philanthropy: you endow public libraries everywhere (including Toronto) to make up for the striking workers you killed and unions you smashed in places like Homestead, Pennsilvanya. 

But Carnegie wasn't a liberal. Liberals aren't about mere self-interest, they're too often about social approval and moral superiority. That's why Starbucks is the Hillary Clinton of corporate coffee chains. They're always perplexed by What Happened? And they'll never, ever get it.

This article originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Image: Todd Huffman/Flickr

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