Will he or won't he?
Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, who said Monday he would retire later this month from the coffee giant he built, has Washington percolating over a possible presidential run. In interviews with media outlets this week, Schultz said he was considering a run for public office -- and didn't rule out taking a grande shot at the White House.
Asked directly whether he worried Starbucks' brand could get wrapped up in any political campaign, Schultz said in a CNBC interview that "there is an an anomaly here," noting "my connection and association with the company, we'd have to deal with that. But we're a long way from that."
Indeed it would be. While other business leaders have run for president -- or even become one -- a campaign by someone who essentially founded one of the world's most global, publicly traded consumer brands is extremely rare, if not unprecedented. Donald Trump headed up a privately owned family business. Mitt Romney led a large private-equity firm that buys up companies. Carly Fiorina ran HP but was not its founder. Ross Perot started data-processing and I.T. services companies.
CEOs have been speaking out more on social issues or wading into political topics, raising questions about how doing so could damage their company's reputation in an increasingly tribal and divisive marketplace. But a former CEO of a multinational consumer brand actually running for president -- diving deeper into public policy specifics, drawing scrutiny for past practices from political journalists, becoming the subject of opposition research -- could bring even more potential blowback.
Should Schultz run, "political opponents on both sides of the aisle, since he’d be in the primary process, will begin to tear apart every business decision he’s made -- how he’s traded his shares, every aspect of his executive decision making, his employee relationships," said Bruce Haynes, vice chair of Sard Verbinnen's new public affairs office in Washington. Whatever they found "doesn’t just reflect on him -- it reflects on the brand."
Starbucks has long touted its generosity with employees, talking up the health care, "bean stock" and online college tuition benefits it gives baristas, and Schultz has long spoken openly about Starbucks' corporate values of community, inclusion and "humanity." He has led an effort to help jobless youth find work, lobbied his corporate peers to hold off on campaign contributions to push for action in Washington and co-produced a documentary series about Americans who engage in acts of citizenship.
That, combined with efforts like the vow to hire 10,000 refugees globally following Trump's travel ban order last year, or remarks about gun control or same-sex marriage, mean Schultz's political leanings won't surprise anyone, brand experts say.
"It's no secret where he stands on most of those issues," said Peter Horst, a former chief marketing officer of Hershey and author of the recent book "Marketing in the Fake News Era: New rules for a new reality of tribalism, activism and loss of trust.”
"I think they’ve embedded themselves in such a meaningful way in consumers’ lives that it’s not likely to be shaken by a particular policy surprise" if he runs, Horst said.
The company's history of publicizing its business practices also means Starbucks may be more prepared than the average company for scrutiny if Schultz decides to run, said Aaron Chatterji, a professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business who has studied CEO activism.
"Opponents will think if they can take down Starbucks, they can take down Schultz because he would be building his campaign on his business experience," Chatterji said. But while he expects the company to be a target, "this is a company that’s used to being in the limelight and has a strong and well-developed communications team."
Yet Starbucks's history is also not without controversial episodes that could reemerge in a political campaign, drawing attention to issues the company might rather not see the spotlight again. Recently, Starbucks came under fire for the arrests of two black men in one of its Philadelphia stores, and Schultz's "race together" campaign back in 2015 was widely derided. The company has come under scrutiny for scheduling irregularities it promised to fix, for instance, and has had past run-ins with union organizing efforts.
Haynes points to headlines that zeroed in on Bain Capital's business decisions when Romney was a candidate, noting the risk of any possible ones about job cuts or past decisions by Starbucks to close stores in politically sensitive places, such as swing states.
"The lens of politics is very different from the lens of business," Haynes said, noting that Schultz, who built the company into the juggernaut it is today, is "inextricably tied to the brand." "Something may be a smart business decision, but in the political arena, it’s 'I can’t believe you treated people that way.' "
The Washington Post reported that as of April, only two of the 19 companies Trump listed that were paying him to produce or distribute Trump-branded consumer goods were still doing so. Some quit in response to Trump's rhetoric on immigrants and Muslims during the campaign, while others said their licensing agreements had expired.
There's a different risk for companies like Starbucks that have built up a values-driven sheen to their brands, experts say. Those who tout corporate ideals such as diversity, inclusion and civility can be ultimately held to a higher standard if something goes wrong, said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
Still, he believes that if Starbucks and Schultz can manage to keep separate the two brands -- the corporate coffee giant's and the potential candidate's -- the risk will be limited. Reed said research has shown that even if people sound off on social media with complaints, their buying behavior rarely changes.
"At the end of the day, are you going to stop going to Starbucks?" he said. "The answer is probably no, when it comes down to it, people don't usually do that."