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Brand on the Run

The empty politics of the Starbucks shutdown

Earlier this month, an employee at a Philadelphia Starbucks called the cops after two men refused to leave the premises. The men, who were both African American, claimed to be waiting for a friend to show up. The Starbucks manager, who was white, told police the men were committing “disturbance and trespass.” A video of the incident went viral; Starbucks issued a tepid statement expressing “disappointment” and promising it wouldn’t happen again. The statement, which was widely viewed as insufficient, prompted even greater outrage and triggered the threat of a boycott. In an effort to stop the bleeding, Starbucks apologized again, this time more pointedly, and announced they would close eight thousand of its U.S. locations on May 29, so all employees could attend a day of sensitivity training.

On first glance, this all looked to be a net win in the ever-thorny quest for racial equity in America. The manager’s quotidian racism is the sort of behavior that can be weeded out through training, which should be a mandatory feature of any workplace. True, it shouldn’t have taken a PR crisis to make this a part of Starbucks’ employment program, but better late than never. You could argue that their abrupt implementation of the policy smacks of a publicity stunt or applaud the coffee leviathan for taking action so swiftly.

Still, this face-saving endgame can’t help but invite deep skepticism. Starbucks executives, in the face of mounting consumer pressure, didn’t just get out in front of the situation and seize control of the narrative. They turned it into a brand moment that allowed them to repair, and possibly reinforce, the perception of Starbucks as a corporation with good politics. Even though Starbucks’ handling of the situation was a mess, the company was able to exploit and reinforce the idea that a corporation can aspire to good politics. Indeed, the PR blitz sought to persuade the world that Starbucks was not only good, but that it was earnestly striving to do better.

And this is where things get decidedly sinister. In hailing this latest feint toward corporate self-reform, we engage in a classic bit of neoliberal wish-fulfillment fantasy. However unconsciously, we talk about corporations’ politics as malleable when in reality, they’re uniform and disturbing. A huge multi-national company like Starbucks is inextricably plugged into the system of global capitalism and, as such, is complicit in all the forms of oppression that this system engenders or heightens. But in the age of branding, corporations aren’t just business entities. Our view of ourselves as discerning consumers leads to a corresponding desire for a personal, meaningful relationship with the products and services that keep our all-consuming egos aloft.

By pretending to make peace with its critics, Starbucks successfully props up the lie that there’s any peace to be made.

To fill out this equation, brands take on an anthropomorphic life of their own. Because of our need to engage with them on a personal level, brands are understood as possessing their own distinctive personalities, inclinations, voices, vibes, and yes, politics, in the same way an individual would. This logic has proven hugely controversial when brands and the corporations creating them claim civic equality with the rest of us (cf. the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby decisions by the Roberts Court). But the same image of corporations-as-brand-buddies goes unchecked and unquestioned in the broader consumer marketplace.

As if in recognition of these civic-procedural guardrails, brand politics understands its own limitations; a brand can only say so much, or weigh in on so many issues, before larger, interdependent systems start to creep into view. In other words, our brands tend to practice a la carte politics, taking up issues in isolation and referring to them glibly as “causes.” It’s how you get self-appointed #BlackLivesMatter leader DeRay Mckesson giving a talk sponsored by the flagrantly racist mortgage moguls at Wells Fargo—as if police brutality could be neatly separated out from predatory lending and other forms of economic oppression. When the radical, intersectional critique advanced by BLM gets reduced to a single talking point, it becomes ripe for corporate appropriation.

We see this same dynamic reflected in the outrage that greeted the Starbucks incident: the problem is taken in isolation—as “Starbucks has to deal with its employees’ racism”—and then addressed easily through the right splashy measures (like the sensitivity furlough, or the still more gimmicky “Race Together” initiative of 2015). And voila: the offending corporation is spared the thankless ordeal of owning up to the full extent of its unsavory behavior. And in granting our corporate chieftains such generous self-confected alibis, we’re also letting ourselves off the hook: We’re willing to forgive corporations, to allow them to put on a brave face, because we intuitively treat them as brands that reflect who we are or want to be.

This arrangement serves corporations well. Not only does it allow them to present themselves as “woke” and their products as a proxy form of social-justice branding; the abrupt shift into self-engineered corporate damage control also staves off the threat of any kind of real collective action—like a strike or boycott. In the absence of any such outside pressure, corporate leaders get to set the terms of debate and critical engagement. Blazoning their own brand voices forward, they define what trust was violated, what harms can be rectified, and what an acceptable politics looks like for them. And they also manage to prevent any more serious critique from getting out of hand by admitting the wrongdoing of their choice and casting it as something that follows its own discrete blueprint for resolution.

This entire dynamic gains a great deal of traction from the atomized nature of the outrage cycle. And the remedies of incrementally improved barista training or fatuous “conversations about race” on the side of a coffee cup permit our brand leaders to alienate as few consumers as possible, in a way that the inherently polarizing logic of collective action never would.

What’s more, by pretending to make peace with its critics, Starbucks successfully props up the lie that there’s any peace to be made there—that, as a brand, Starbucks is politically accountable in the same way that an individual should be.

To get some fuller sense of how this bait and switch plays out in everyday life, it’s instructive to look at how individual politics work under neoliberalism. Having the luxury to only care about certain things—whether out of laziness, privilege, or nefarious self-interest—is a kind of brand management for the political self. It allows us all to insulate ourselves from the larger, interdependent system of oppression, while overlooking the many ways in which we’re encouraged to regard politics as something more than a proverbial game or a scrum for marginal advantage in the news cycles that make up a campaign season. No, a brand politics makes us all proprietors of a species of activism that props up our own public image.

Put another way: the a la carte politics practiced by brands stems directly from the kind of politics we currently allow people to get away with. In fact, the careful assemblage of an unruffled worldview—a touch of Black Lives Matter here, a burst of #MeToo solidarity there—is almost always more socially acceptable than actually digging into structural concerns and demanding greater accountability. And armed with brand-style memes and hashtags, we’re then unloosed to practice a cost-free politics of personal consumption, without ever really rocking the boat or challenging people subscribing to rival worldviews in any substantive way.

There’s also a telling symbiosis at play here: Brands are individuals, but it’s also true that individuals are brands, and the superficial politics that serve corporations so well are just as expedient (and instrumental) for people who care primarily about their own relative perceived wokeness, and let it passively delimit the extent of their political engagement.

Given the genuine presuppositions  of our corporate politics, Starbucks’ initial statement—toothless as it was—was correct. The “bad apple” postulate, most frequently deployed to distance killer cops from institutions of law enforcement, could be readily applied here. The manager evinced racism and was swiftly cashiered; bad apple ejected, problem solved—at least until the next one surfaces. This would have been a band-aid remedy at best, but it would at least have had the virtue of calling things by their true names: a racist store manager is a racist store manager.

Instead of an honest reckoning with either corporate prerogatives or corporate responsibilities, we get a disingenuous middle way.

Alternatively, Starbucks could go beyond “don’t call the cops on the wrong people” and start a conversation about whether or not the cops should be called on anyone, or what rights customers should presume themselves to have in this kind of quasi-public space—and what sort of civic order, as holders of this space, Starbucks is responsible to uphold. But of course neither Starbucks nor any other corporate brand would admit any of the basic premises needed for a serious conversation along these lines—the notion that they possess obligations to core notions of social-democratic equality in addition to a shape-shifting license to brand themselves in the image of the movement du jour.

So instead of an honest reckoning with either corporate prerogatives or corporate responsibilities, we get a disingenuous middle way. And this, too, works to the brand’s advantage: while Starbucks takes a hit short-term, the company has actually increased its public profile as a brand with a self-sustaining political outlook—and a self-correcting one, into the bargain. The myth goes unchallenged and they’re free to continue business as usual.

Oh, and those eight thousand locations closing for the day? As of April, there were over sixteen thousand Starbucks locations in America, if you count both company-operated and licensed stores. This means that, while Starbucks management has given the impression that the entire chain will be shut down for the day, customers will probably be able to get their macchiatos with only the slightest inconvenience.

The object lesson here, though, isn’t financial—or even a question of brand management, strictly speaking. As many of us will continue discussing whether Starbucks’ face-saving overture will earn the company more credit than it deserves, the unanswered—and largely unasked—question is why the brand should deserve any credit at all.