CEO Activism in Action: Lessons to Learn from Starbucks’ Freshly-Tested CEO and the Importance of Creating Values that Work

As purpose-driven marketing has evolved, we’ve heard a lot about CEO activism and the responsibility of the chief executive to live her company’s values through her actions and initiatives. The phrase conjures up the work of Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani and his support for refugees; Marc Benioff of Salesforce and his outspoken opposition to the proposed religious Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana; and, of course, Howard Schultz of Starbucks: a true leader of this movement because of his willingness to align the chain with causes and commitments.

Earlier this week, his successor Kevin Johnson faced a major test on how to infuse purpose in a crisis situation. Yet, they’ve been tested like this before.

They are no stranger to complicated issues. Remember, they once encouraged baristas to write “race together” on cups and start important conversation about race with customers who were eager to get their latte and go on with their day.

  • Was it well thought out or well executed? No, not really.
  • Could it have addressed systemic problems in our country if done better or at least made us start talking about them in a new way? I think so.
  • Was it done with the best of intentions for a more united country? Absolutely.

But, were it not for this fumble and Starbucks’ willingness to put itself out there and improve, striving to live its value of creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome, they might not have been able to respond as effectively to this weekend’s challenge in Philadelphia.

Here’s what they did right.

  • Rather than blaming the incident on a low-level staff member and chalking the whole thing up to a glitch in the machine, Johnson took full responsibility, saying “I own it. This is a management issue, and I am accountable.” Here he’s connecting to two key values — being present with transparency and holding the company accountability for results.
  • Rather than simply make an apology and a simple ‘we’re working on it!’, he has committed to shutting down stores (at a potential $16 million cost for lost sales) so that all employees can go through racial-bias training. Here, he is showing challenging the status quo in an extremely courageous way, showing his staff and customers that doing the right thing is more important than profit for his shareholders or cash in his pocket.
  • And, rather than appearing cold, angry or disaffected in interviews, Johnson is clearly troubled. This demonstrates his humanity and reminds us that even though he’s a CEO, he’s still a human whose heart beats with the same empathy as the rest of us. After all, humanity is the bow that ties up all of the brand’s values: We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity.

So, what’s the takeaway for the rest of us who want to create human-driven companies and nonprofits?

Take the time it requires to clearly articulate a set of values for your company — figure out what you stand for and what you don’t. Defining your brand purpose allows you to exist for so much more than the product you make or the service you offer.

For Starbucks: yes, they are masters at delivering a good cup of coffee around the world. But their legacy will be the lives that they improved and the change in culture they affected along the way. Their values provide a framework for how to respond in good times and in bad, it creates a filter for new programs, policies, offerings and partnerships that go much further than what they sell — but allow them to play a role in people’s lives.

As marketers, there is so much we can do to humanize our clients and our brands. We’re excited to be at the heart of this movement to determine values and work toward progress in every way we can.

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