Howard Schultz may no longer be in charge, but Starbucks won’t be stepping back from its progressive stances anytime soon.
“Will I continue on the social impact agenda as it relates to the core values of the company? Absolutely,” Kevin Johnson, who became Starbucks’ CEO on April 3, told Business Insider. “It is what allows us to attract the partners [Starbucks’ term for employees] who have an affinity to those values and who are here to serve customers.”
The coffee chain has taken action over the years on issues as varied as veteran unemployment, racism in America, and, most recently, supporting refugees. In January, days after President Trump announced an executive order attempting to ban all refugees from entering the US, Starbucks announced it planned to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide in the next five years.
As a result, Starbucks has become a target for boycotts. While the company has maintained that its initiatives are based on principles, not politics, some customers have accused the company of “political brainwashing.” In March, a representative for a conservative think tank said in a Q&A at Starbucks’ annual meeting that initiatives such as hiring refugees were both partisan and bad for business.
Johnson believes the exact opposite is true.
Starbucks’ decision to take action on certain social issues doesn’t just make for progressive feel-good stories, Johnson said. It is also a strategic way to attract and retain engaged employees who feel connected to the coffee chain.
“These are not about political statements,” Johnson said. “I think they are about our principles and what we are doing to create the environment where our partners are proud to be at Starbucks… We are here to serve others, we are here to help other people, we are here to create opportunities for people. And, that is culturally who we are.”
Speaking with Business Insider, Johnson repeated the idea that Starbucks’ ability to connect with its customers on a social level is what differentiates the company from its competition. Engaged baristas who believe in Starbucks’ values are crucial to creating an environment that sets the chain apart from others that are more focused on speed and convenience, such as Dunkin’ Doughnuts or McDonald’s.
“What is the number one reason that customers come back to Starbucks? Answer: It is the baristas in the store,” Johnson said. “We are in the business of human connection… between our partners in our stores and every single customer that walks in.”
During Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting, Johnson referenced a Fortune article with the headline ‘Chronic Loneliness Is a Modern-Day Epidemic’ in explaining Starbucks’ role and relevance. People are lonely, and Starbucks can offer them something more valuable than coffee: connection.
However, to do so, Starbucks baristas need to believe they are doing more than just peddling drinks — they’re also serving up emotional connection. Initiatives that range from paying for employees to go to college to holding employee forums to discussing issues like race relations and immigration are intended to do just that. Johnson himself has started a practice of what he calls “partner connections,” or trips where he visits stores to sit down with five to seven employees for an hour and a half and talk about their experiences, aspirations, and dreams.
“I think our partners are emotionally connected to our mission and those values,” Johnson said. “That’s why we invest so much in our partners… We believe in the value that our partners create in terms of human connection, and we’re going to continue to invest in that.”
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