One coffee, black, hold the politics: Companies are coming to terms with how much activism customers want with their brands; it’s a hard line to draw.
How would you like your coffee — milk, sugar and a side of politics?
In an era when it seems impossible to divorce politics from everything else, Dunkin’ Brands, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts, is betting you might just appreciate a break whilst in their stores.
At an International Trademark Association meeting Monday, Dunkin’s vice president of brand stewardship Drayton Martin told a room full of professors pointedly, “We are not Starbucks. We aren’t political. We don’t want to engage you in political conversation, we want to get you in and out of our store in seconds.” She also reportedly added, “We don’t want people burning their Munchkin boxes.”
This stands in refreshingly stark relief from the in-your-face political preaching of some other companies. And not just Starbucks, where former chairman/CEO and presidential might-run Howard Schultz waded heavily into politics. Starbucks named their stores “gun-free zones,” announced it will hire refugees in protest of President Trump’s immigration ban, and infamously launched an ill-fated campaign to have baristas confront unsuspecting customers about race after handing over their half-caf, no foam, skim mocha lattes.
In 2017, Pepsi apologized for a cringeworthy ad featuring model Kendall Jenner at a fictional Black Lives Matter protest, seeming to solve race relations by handing a police officer a soft drink; it managed to tick off multiple competing activist groups.
Earlier this month, Burger King debuted its Real Meals, the mental-health conscious alternative to McDonalds’ Happy Meals. At select stores, consumers can choose the Blue Meal, the Salty Meal, the YAAAS Meal and the DGAF Meal. The company’s explanation of how, exactly this would affect our national mental health crisis, was “With Real Meals, the Burger King brand celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel.” Many people, however, saw it for what it was: a marketing ploy that exploited a very real health crisis.
Corporate America’s path to wokeness has been littered with casualties, and Dunkin’ clearly wants to avoid becoming part of the carnage.
Others might be catching on.
This week, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro revealed in a Los Angeles Times interview, “Without question our data tells us our fans do not want us to cover politics,” marking a significant shift in coverage by the sports outlet, which had come under increasing scrutiny for foisting politics on unwitting sports fans.
But, as consumers of coffee, soft drinks and sports news draw a sigh of relief, it’s important not to confuse politics with social consciousness.
While the public might recoil at pushy politics, American consumers still believe corporate America should be socially aware. According to a Morning Consult poll from last year, 59 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans say a company’s stance on a social or political matter is important when it comes to buying a product or service.
When Nike released an ad supporting Black Lives Matter activist Colin Kaepernick, detractors burned their sneakers and some states and cities even tried to ban the brand. But its stock surged by 5 percent in the three weeks after the ad debuted.
In the wake of Trump’s corporate tax cut, environmentally active clothing company Patagonia said it would take the money it was saving in taxes and put it “back into the planet.” Patagonia climbed from No. 9 to No. 3 on the 2019 Harris Poll Reputation Quotient, measuring the trust and reputation of the 100 most visible companies nominated by consumers.
Other brands on the list saw similar movement, including Dick’s Sporting Goods and IKEA, both of which earned top spots following their moves to restrict gun sales and address climate change, respectively. Chick-fil-A draws the ire of progressives for its opposition to same-sex marriage, but among Republicans it earned the No. 1 spot on the list.
It’s a fine line that proves difficult to navigate. The message to corporate America, entertainment media and even Hollywood isn’t that social issues shouldn’t matter — it’s that politics shouldn’t overtake the experience of watching sports, buying a cup of coffee or eating a hamburger.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.