When we don’t like something we’ve purchased what do we do? We return it. If a sales associate doesn’t provide the service ‘you deserve’, what do you do? You ask to speak to the manager. And when a CEO isn’t creating results? The board tells them “You are fired!” This is why it is so perplexing that we voters have become so complacent with Washington’s inability to get anything done. Why don’t we treat our government and politicians like brands, and hold them accountable, just like we would a brand that we patronize and enrich with our hard earned dollars? Their blatant inability to meet the tasks at hand, is not only what makes CEOs such an attractive option for presidential candidates, but what will ultimately lead to the extinction of the politician all together, unless they switch course and take a page from the brands we so admire.
Howard Schultz: Problem Solving and Human Connection
The latest CEO to contemplate a presidential candidacy is Howard Schultz–– former CEO of Starbucks. In his new book From the Ground Up Schultz offers a message that viscerally resonated with me. He offers “I have come to believe that people must not stand by in the face of human distress and broken systems. And if these two predicaments are intertwined––if human suffering is the result of others abdicating their responsibilities, or showing a lack of respect for another person––it becomes what can only be described as an injustice. In me, injustice sparks a restlessness I have tried to combat with the tools and resources I have at that time.”
This feeling of restlessness to fix things around oneself is one that I share with Shultz, and why I deeply admire him. His impetus permeates through the Starbucks brand and it is the reason why I choose to grab my daily coffee from the chain every morning. This need to problem solve, as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, is also among the reasons why I think I decided to pursue a career in brand strategy––one that I hope to fuse with my other passion: Urban Planning and Community Development. Mastering how to properly communicate a message, change perception, and shape human behavior I thought was an imperative first step if I wanted shape the world around me.
Naturally, this sparks an interest of the role of strategy (or lack thereof) in politics, and is the reason why I am fascinated by the possibility of Schultz’s run for the presidency. At his very core, he is a strategist and he has built a multi-billion dollar brand understanding that Starbucks doesn’t just sell you coffee. It provides a space (a third space) to satisfy one, if not the most important of human needs: connection. This is what brings me (I am sitting at a Starbucks as I write this), to my local Starbucks everyday.
To believe in human connection doesn’t necessarily mean that I spark a conversation with every person at Starbucks––I am not much of a chatter box––but that I believe that we all have a responsibility to each other. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks, I feel like I have an impact on those around me through the various initiatives the brand has implemented. As Schultz notes in his book, Starbucks “is in the business of investing In people.” At the end of the day we all want to become better versions of ourselves, we all want the reassurance that someone believes in us, and that we aren’t weaving through the world alone. I believe Starbucks evokes this. For some, human connection might in fact be materialized by Starbucks offering a third space to spark a conversation. For others like me, it is conjured up through the comfort of knowing that through the purchase of every cup of coffee, we are investing in people.
The Golden Circle
Human connection is Starbucks’ why in what Simon Sinek calls the ‘Golden Circle’––a three layered circle that postulates the differentiating way that all inspiring leaders and organizations think, act, and communicate from the competition. Sinek suggest that every leader or organization knows what they do, some know how they do it, but very few know why they do what they do. Very few can communicate why they get out of bed every morning or why should others care. The why is the most important message that a brand on a path to success must communicate. This is because like the ‘Golden Circle,’ our brain is layered into three parts. Unlike the what which correlates to the neocortex of our brain––responsible for all rational and analytical thought and language––the why correlates to the innermost layer of our limbic brain, which is responsible for our feelings like trust and loyalty, for human behavior, and decision making. Thus, when we communicate our why to others we are targeting the part of the brain that controls behavior. Simply put, people don’t buy what you do but why you do it. Successfully communicating why, is what builds trust between brands and consumers. The why is something you don’t hear politicians communicating very often anymore, but you hear from the most inspiring brands of today; and it is the biggest take away that a politician can learn from a great brand like Starbucks.
Starbucks in many ways has become my second home, and through an experience––I also think Starbucks is among the top echelons in the experiential economy––and a very strong sense of why, guests have developed and incredible attachment to the brand. The type of attachment that many politicians could only dream of––isn’t it the ultimate goal of politicians to ignite desire among their customers (voters) for their brand (their platform)?
Yet, in a recent 2018 Gallup poll, 42% of voters identified as independents in 2017 (up from 39% in 2016), meaning that most voters aren’t very loyal to politicians. But people are loyal and trust brands, which is why these entities and those who lead them will continue to play a more prevalent role in government. I know what you are thinking: they already do, they lobby the shit out of Washington, and are the source of many of our current predicaments. However, the role that I envision brands playing in government, is one where they replace it in its entirety.
Below are some the best examples of CEOs and brands cutting the middleman—the politician—out and responding to the issues that plague their audiences. Their leadership is evident by choosing social conscientiousness over profit and by taking the right side––that of the consumer. Foremost, they demonstrate a strong sense of why, anchored in holding themselves accountable to the values they’ve promised to deliver, and on finding new ways of adding value and improving the lives of the people that patronize them.
1. B Strong by Skinny Girl CEO Bethenny Frankel
Perplexed by everyone telling her she could not go to Puerto Rico following the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the entrepreneur's innate response was “well, isn’t that why I have to go?” This sense of urgency to help others was at odds with that of the Trump administration, which came under fire for its slow response and the lack of resources it provided the United States territory. Frankel had no time to partake in the political feuding, and showed more interest than those who voters commissioned to lead; noting that “planning a dinner party is probably as complicated as this.” Ultimately her no-nonsense take-charge attitude led to one of the largest private relief efforts amounting to $40 Million.
In early 2018, CEO Ed Bastian issued a company-wide memo announcing an end to Delta’s discount program for NRA members; this amidst a swarm of petitions urging companies to cut ties with the group following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High. This decision led Georgia politicians to revoke a $40 Million tax break on fuel, but as Bastian noted in his memo, “our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale.” Like Shultz, Bastian understands that Delta doesn’t just sell flights, it sells values that customers expect the airline to uphold. However, the biggest take away for politicians from Delta was offered by Bastian when speaking to Fortune Magazine, where he expressed that in trying to run the best airline on the planet “we have a responsibility to our customers, employees, and community partners to do the right thing.”
Last September, the sportswear company released a spot narrated and starring Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback who sparked controversy for protesting the NFL National Anthem. In the spot Kaepernick goes on to say “believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything,” cementing Nike on the right side of history––one where the spectacle and profit of football does not trump racial justice. While not without backlash, the move by Nike led to a 31% increase in their online sales the week following their spot’s debut. Not only was Nike on the right side of history, but on the side of their customers.
Patagonia’s efforts to protect the environment are well documented. For thirty years the brand has propelled efforts to protect public lands; and since 1986 it has donated either one percent of sales or 10 percent of profits––whichever is greater––to such causes. Two years ago, however, Patagonia raised the bar even further by going head to head with the Trump administration. In December of 2017, the brand used its website and social channels to display the message "The President Stole Your Land," ––in response to the administration’s decision to roll back protections to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments––and pledged that they would pursue legal action against Trump’s decision: “Patagonia, together with a coalition of Native American, conservation and historic preservation organizations, officially filed its complaint against President Trump and four members of his administration in federal court in Washington, D.C.” As Patagonia has learned over the last decade, “its business continues to grow every time it takes a stand. For Patagonia, a brand that still relies most heavily on outdoors enthusiasts for business despite its newfound fashion cache, that means recognizing that fighting to keep wild lands wild isn't likely to alienate core customers.” The result? In the last decade the brand has seen its most successful years in terms of business.
Disruption: Brands Take Over
The extinction of the politician is near, unless of course they follow the footsteps of today’s most inspiring brands. But what would a world where brands begin to meet the needs that politicians can’t look like? Apple can create a school of engineering, no brand has more legitimacy to provide us with healthcare than Equinox, and Patagonia will continue to protect our lands. What is the need for brands to lobby when they can just cut the middle man out and meet the needs of voters all on their own? As reflected by the examples above, brands have a track record of listening to their customers better than politicians.
As for Howard Schultz, he is just disrupting a system that vastly needs it. Isn’t that exactly what every brand––from Amazon to Uber––that we glorify today has done? Government is in need of major disruption, and Schultz is just here to allow us to visualize it, and perhaps even realize it. You know how he’ll do it? By sharing his why.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the parties quoted.