Starbucks’ success proves that a multimillion-dollar advertising program isn’t a prerequisite for building a national brand—nor are the deep pockets of a big corporation. You can do it one customer at a time, one store at a time, one market at a time. In fact, that may be the best way to inspire loyalty and trust in customers. By word of mouth, with patience and discipline, over a period of years, you can elevate a good local brand to a great national brand—one that remains relevant to individual customers and communities for years. – Howard Schultz
Billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are spending 25 to 50 times as much as frontrunner Joe Biden on presidential ads. They are burning through hundreds of millions of dollars on their long-shot bids for office. Both these men have also financed independent, grassroots organizations, fighting for issues like climate change and gun safety. But their presidential bids suggest they haven’t really internalized the lessons of how to build power for the things they care about.
Whenever I hear about their campaigns, I think about advice they and other rich people could have taken from a third billionaire who briefly toyed with the idea of running for president, Howard Schultz. Of course, it’s not Schultz’s political advice they should follow: Schultz’s own idea of a third-party candidacy was ill-conceived. But wealthy centrists, most of all Schultz himself, could apply to the world of politics what Schultz learned in retail. Starbucks offers a surprisingly good roadmap for building political power. With Bloomberg and Steyer ad-buying their way to likely defeat, it’s worth reflecting on what they could be doing instead.
Consider three components of Starbucks’ retail success. First, Schultz didn’t start Starbucks with a national advertising campaign. He started with a few stores in Seattle, expanding with 15 new stores in one year, 20 new stores the next, first in the Pacific Northwest, then Chicago, then Los Angeles and beyond. His pace was fast relative to other businesses, but it was measured in years, not months: “One customer at a time, one store at a time, one market at a time … with patience and discipline,” as he wrote. It was nothing like the way he briefly imagined building a new political brand that could compete at the national level in one election cycle.
Second, Schultz considers the secret to his success to be his local organizers: the well-trained, fairly compensated, enthusiastic staff at his stores. Schultz incentivized staff to build long-term relationships with customers. He listened to staff feedback. His deputy hand-signed cards to celebrate staff birthdays, a practice reminiscent of the best political bosses showing their local organizers that they are appreciated.
Third, Schultz balanced giving customers what he thought they needed with what they said they wanted. His first retail store, the snobby predecessor to modern Starbucks, was called Il Giornale. It featured opera music, baristas with bowties, and no seats. The goal was “to educate customers to appreciate coffee the way we liked it.” Early on, Schultz resisted catering to customers’ demands. “We will never offer nonfat milk,” he said, “it’s not who we are.”
Then for the sake of the business, he suppressed his ego. Yes, he wanted customers to experience coffee the way he liked it, but he also wanted to please them. He gave them comfortable seats and better music. He gave them nonfat milk. He also gave them the Frappuccino, a recipe developed by an empowered store manager at the request of customers. Schultz continuously made compromises to satisfy his customers. He gave out free drink coupons to those who weren’t satisfied.
When it comes to politics, Schultz and most rich benefactors (the Kochs are the most prominent exception) behave differently. They are top-down, ego-driven, above the fray, unresponsive, and unrealistic. They’ll blabber on at foundation summits, but they don’t act like they want citizens to buy into their brand of politics. Otherwise they would do what worked in retail.
I call their behavior “political hobbyism.” In my new book, Politics is for Power, that’s the term I use for all of us who spend time on politics to satisfy our short-term emotional and intellectual desires rather than to build power for things we care about. For the non-wealthy, political hobbyism takes the form of obsessive news consumption and online discourse. For run-of-the-mill wealthy people, it also includes attending fancy fundraisers (think: wine caves) to talk politics and to be seen. For the ultrarich, it’s narcissistic super PACs and presidential campaigns.
Those who want to advance their values could instead draw from Starbucks’ model. First, the timeframe for growing a movement would be practical. In 1987, Schultz’s ambitious but achievable promise to investors was 125 new stores in five years. What could entrepreneurial political funders do in five years? Build a party caucus that shares their values? Gain a foothold in some state legislatures? Take over some political party committees? Start in one state and build up.
The second thing to do is hire that army of organizers, like the Starbucks staff but for politics. These organizers — many thousands of them — need to establish trust with voters and enthusiastically sell an agenda. I’m not talking about hiring the organizers the way Michael Bloomberg is doing now. He’s hiring a few hundred people nationwide to work for a few months to sell voters on the idea of Michael Bloomberg. That’s like trying to get folks to buy their coffee from bowties-and-opera Il Giornale. Instead, wealthy benefactors can help hire organizers who can stay in communities for years, making adjustments to their pitches and incorporating feedback, just like at Starbucks.
Third, any rich centrist who wants to engage in politics will also need to balance their values with popular demands. Schultz has preferences in government, just as he likes strong coffee and whole milk. A lot of people don’t care about those preferences. The lesson from Starbucks is that you try to keep your core values but give people their Frappuccinos if that’s what they want.
In the past, political parties built coalitions not just by offering big ideas but by understanding what people wanted in the moment. That sometimes involved party machines handing out free turkeys or vaccine shots. One of the reasons politics has gotten more polarized is because all parties offer today is ideology. Many ordinary, moderate voters are turned off by ideological appeals. More than they want unrealistic promises, they might appreciate a free turkey and a neighborly organizer who can improve their day-to-day lives. But no one is offering that.
Well, not no one. Groups at the ideological poles understand the Starbucks strategy. For instance, the Democratic Socialists of America have recruited members to their brand of big government not just by bloviating about socialist dreams, but by offering free child care on school-vacation days and free auto repair clinics. Howard Schultz might think that’s dirty politics. He doesn’t like the political parties. I’m guessing he’s not a big fan of socialists either. But notice that he had no problem offering free drink coupons or free Internet when he wanted customers at Starbucks. He wasn’t all talk and “advocacy.” He gave concrete proof to customers that he cared about them.
In Politics is for Power, I give some suggestions for how political parties and their aligned groups can show voters they care about them. One example is to pay for emergency back-up child care and elder care as a way of promoting a party brand. Rather than just promising voters far-reaching policy goals that may or may not happen in five or ten years — and certainly rather than Bloomberg and Steyer spending $200 million dollars on fruitless ads — show voters now that you empathize with their immediate needs. Notice: Any party, with any ideology, can do this. Moderate local and state parties can do this to build rapport, and so can extreme groups. As I discuss, in 2018 the Ku Klux Klan went around in North Carolina not just promoting their noxious ideology, but offering to help opioid addicts, telling them addiction isn’t their fault and that the KKK was there to help them through it. If moderate readers and funders feel squeamish about offering direct service as a way to build a political brand, they should know who is out there doing it instead.
As Steven Teles and Robert Saldin recently noted, “Moderates lose to those on the ideological extremes because their adversaries — to their credit — actually do the hard, long-term work that democratic politics rewards.” Moderates, they write, “have largely abandoned the field.” Centrists haven’t applied the Starbucks retail model in politics because they might be comfortable enough with the status quo that they are satiated by political hobbyism. They don’t feel like they need more power than they already have.
Wealthy centrists have an opportunity to show they’re willing to fight for democracy not through bids for the presidency in the manner of Steyer and Bloomberg, but in the way that Schultz fought in retail: with an entrepreneurial vision, a realistic plan, an army of organizers, and a willingness to compromise between values and public demands. If instead they keep to the powerless track of hobbyism, they shouldn’t be surprised when the country turns toward a form of politics they despise. And that despises them.
Eitan Hersh, an associate professor at Tufts University, is author of Politics is for Power.