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Keeping Your Brand Out of Politics

Politics has gotten ugly. OK, it’s always been ugly, but in the last decade, it’s gotten extra super ugly. As a nation, we are more divided than ever by politics and it doesn’t look like this is going to change any time soon. Many companies (wisely) try to stay out of all things political as much as possible. As we saw with the Susan G. Komen PR disaster earlier this month, doing otherwise can create an unwanted poopie storm of biblical proportions. Unfortunately, sometimes particular special interest groups try and drag brands into their fights. Such has been the case with Starbucks and guns. In most states, if you don’t have a criminal record and meet certain established requirements, you can get a license to carry a concealed firearm. While this fact completely freaks out a vocal minority of people who envision gun fights over parking spaces and a return to the Wild West, the truth is concealed carry is a non-issue. As a matter of fact, concealed carry permit holders are among the least likely people around to commit a crime with (or without) a firearm. They aren’t really a threat to anyone except, from time to time, criminals. In California, the process of getting a concealed carry license isn’t straightforward at all. Decisions about of who may or may not get a concealed carry permit is left entirely up to local law enforcement. Words like arbitrary and discriminatory come to mind because in practice, the only people who are able to get a permit are judges, politicians or people of privilege. Until the beginning of this year, the only way a California resident could legally exercise their Second Amendment rights was to openly — meaning visibly — carry a holstered and unloaded firearm. Now they can’t even do that (but for the time being, they can still carry shotguns and rifles). Openly carrying a firearm is can be alarming to some people (though, in reality, most don’t even notice). It also exposes the person carrying the firearm to being handcuffed and harrassed by overzealous/uneducated law enforcement personnel. As a result, a growing group of Californians decided to ban together and meet in public places as a way to draw attention to the state’s unfair and inconsistent gun laws and educate others about their cause. One of the places they congregated was Starbucks. The open carry movement drew the attention of several anti-gun groups who began putting pressure on the businesses they frequented to ban firearms entirely from their establishments. Many businesses caved in to the pressure but Starbucks did not. In 2010, the company issued the following statement: While we deeply respect the views of all our customers, Starbucks long-standing approach to this issue remains unchanged.  We comply with local laws and statutes in all the communities we serve.  That means we abide by the laws that permit open carry in 43 U.S. states.  Where these laws don’t exist, openly carrying weapons in our stores is prohibited.  The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores. This simple response provides a BEAUTIFUL example of how a company can – for the most part – stay out of difficult and (emotional/incendiary/divisive) issues. This was probably a tough decision to make, but it was unquestionably the right thing to do in the long run. They took control of their own message and opted to stay focused on the issues that matter to them. As I’ve written here numerous times, companies no longer get to control their own message completely. Customers and others play an increasingly important role in defining any company’s brand. However if a company plays its cards right, it does get the final say. With that one simple statement, Starbucks is now in a position where it no longer has to do or say anything more about the regardless of whether or not it fades away or goes on for years to come — the latter being more likely. Today, for example, The National Gun Victims Action Council made a very lame attempt to paint Starbucks’ refusal to take an anti-gun stance as being part of the “NRA’s lethal pro gun agenda.” They also attempted to organize a nationwide boycott to try and hit Starbucks where it hurts. The result? The NGVAC Facebook page — with a whopping 240 “likes” as of this afternoon — has been taken over by  folks who went out of their way to visit Starbucks in support of its decision to rise above the fray. The Starbucks Facebook page is also loaded with positive comments and words of thanks from sensible and rational people (the majority of whom appear to support the first and second amendments). In all likelihood, the result of the boycott was a noticeable spike in sales for Starbucks. I’d love to know how much but I’m sure this isn’t a story the mainstream media is going to cover. Presumably, Startbucks will have the sense to keep mum about the whole thing as well.