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Starbucks is brewing up feel-good digital civics lessons to go with its coffee

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz talks about the "Race Together" program at the annual shareholders meeting in Seattle in March 2015. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
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Back in March, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz made some presidential-sounding remarks in a typically apolitical setting: An annual stockholder meeting. For seven minutes at the close of the coffee giant's event, Schultz spoke in lofty terms about the lack of civility and leadership in the country, saying "there are moments when I've had a hard time recognizing who we are and who we are becoming. We are facing a test not only of our character but of our morality as a people."

Nearly six months later, Schultz is taking action in an unusual move for a consumer brand. On Wednesday, Starbucks launched a series of online videos, podcasts and digital articles called "Upstanders" that highlight the feel-good stories of people contributing to their communities and is aimed at prompting more civic engagement. But the Starbucks name and coffee cups are largely absent from the series, which will be distributed on the company's mobile app and across its other marketing channels. The content is free, offering no obvious revenue stream for the company. The series was written and produced by Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a former senior editor of The Washington Post who is now a Starbucks senior executive.

While the series is not inherently political -- the videos depict people who've led efforts on issues such as reducing homelessness, keeping women from returning to prison and helping wounded soldiers -- it also touches on hot-button issues such as hostility to the Muslim community and empathy training for police officers. And its rollout did come with some political commentary from Schultz: He not only endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in two interviews related to the announcement, but seemed to indicate the door wasn't closed to enter the political arena himself.

[Howard Schultz wants you to try some civility with your coffee]

In an interview with CNN's Poppy Harlow, Schultz said Wednesday that "I'm hopeful that after the election, and hopefully Hillary Clinton will be elected president, that we will begin to see a level of unity and people coming together." And when co-host Charlie Rose asked Schultz how he was involved in the political process on "CBS This Morning," he said "I'm engaged as a private citizen recognizing that Hillary Clinton needs to be the next president of the United States."

Harlow also asked whether Schultz would run for president. He laughed, then said the question had already been answered by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and that "I’m still a young man. Let’s see what the future holds." Later, he added that "I determined for myself that at this time, I can do more as a private citizen and as the CEO of a public company to advance the causes that I think are important for the country and for our company." 

It was hardly the first time Schultz has been asked the question, but the "let's see what the future holds" comment seemed more open to the possibility than his past remarks. In a New York Times op-ed a year ago, he wrote that "despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray." Fast Company reported last year he said he has "no desire to be in an elected position in government." Time magazine said Schultz answered the question by saying "I don't think that is a solution. I don’t think it ends well."

Whatever his political ambitions, and however unsurprising it may be that a CEO who speaks out about firearms in his stores and gay rights would endorse Clinton, Schultz's efforts to publicly involve himself with social issues stands out amid most public company CEOs, who often fear a customer or shareholder backlash over anything that could be viewed, rightly or not, as having political ties.

After all, shareholders could question the new content series, which the company described as a "multi-million" dollar campaign, if the bottom line payoff isn't clear. And while many customers will no doubt find it inspiring, others could reject getting a serving of social justice from their coffee company, even if the connection isn't as overt as it was with Starbucks' #RaceTogether campaign, which drew widespread criticism. That could be especially the case for customers whose political views don't align with those of Schultz.

When asked about the possibility of turning off customers by "CBS This Morning," Schultz said "we can't be in business just to make money. We must balance profit with conscience and humanity and benevolence and do what's right for our people and our communities. And we are living proof over a 24-year history as a public company we can do all those things and create long-term value for our shareholders."

A Starbucks spokesperson said in an email that the company would like to do more original content beyond the current series, that shareholders have not yet raised concerns about the new content and that "one major way" it will measure its impact or success "is if it makes our partners (employees) proud."

That may help provide a business rationale for Schultz's unusual new foray into web content. As he told Fast Company last year, he believes there is a payoff for the business in taking a stand.

"You can’t attract and retain great people if your sole purpose is to make money, because people, especially young people, want a sense of belonging — to be part of an organization they really believe is doing great work," he told the magazine. "You can’t create that emotional attachment if you stand for nothing."

 Read also:

Why Starbucks chief Howard Schultz put himself at the center of America’s race debate

Corporate America's embrace of gay rights has reached a stunning tipping point

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