Stepping into Troubled Waters

Starbucks and Barilla pasta demonstrated once again the travails of plunging into the roiled waters of emotional social issues.

With a nudge from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asked his latte-sipping customers to leave their guns at home, which prompted gun-toters to rush to the nearest coffee shop and take a selfie of them toting. One Facebook posting showed a guy with an assault rifle sucking up a grande drink, accompanied by his girlfriend wearing a Starbucks T-shirt.

Without a nudge, Chairman Guido Barilla told a reporter he wouldn't use a gay family in his advertisements because "the concept of the sacred family remains one of the basic values of the company." His comments spread through social media and triggered threats of a #BoycottBarilla. One of the first calls Barilla may have received could have been from Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A, who earned a similar boycott for a similar comment. 

Neither plunge into troubled waters will likely have a lasting effect on either consumer giant, but the episodes show what can happen when you enter those waters. You better know how to swim in rough currents.

Schultz is no stranger to the culture wars. He has taken positions in support of gay rights and led a business effort to hire more Americans to speed economic recovery. It wasn't a huge surprise he would enter the gun control minefield. After all, Starbucks says it sells an experience, not just coffee. A lot of people may not be comfortable reading the morning paper or working on their laptop next to someone packing heat.

Symbol of Support or Alienation

The red equal sign signifying support for gay marriage exploded onto social media just as the U.S. Supreme Court heard two major cases challenging a federal law and a California initiative banning same-sex unions. 

While the symbol, launched by the Human Rights Campaign, has been hailed as a brilliant tactic to rally supporters, sympathizers and politicians, questions have arisen about whether it was a smart PR move for many brands that also embraced the red equal sign.

The question seems pertinent because of the hub-bub over Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy's foray into the same issue, which polarized its customer base.

Matt Wilson, writing for, says there has been widespread support for same-sex marriage from brands ranging from Bud Light to Kimpton Hotels and Martha Stewart Living. The difference, Wilson suggests, is that these and other brands assessed their core customer constituencies and concluded it made sense to take a public stand.

That was an easy call for brands that overtly cater to gay customers. But for others, it had the character of jumping on the bandwagon of rapidly shifting views on an issue that not that long ago was discussed in the context of moral and spiritual terms.

Even Chick-fil-A seemed to follow the trend, according to Wilson, as its California outlets offered free meal coupons to gay marriage supporters.

While same-sex marriage appears to be rushing toward broad acceptance in the United States, certainly by younger generations, there is still the possibility that brands will alienate a chunk of customers for their support or opposition of the issue.

Wilson explored that in his blog, quoting Starbucks Chairman Howard Shultz reply to a shareholder who complained about its early support of gay marriage. Shultz reportedly told the shareholder if he could find another company generating a 38 percent return, he should invest his money elsewhere. Not every brand has such an unassailable financial perch to defend its action.