How coffee becomes political during elections

How Coffee Brands Become Political During Election Season

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election was one of the most divisive, highly stressful, and polarizing of the last several decades. Families and friends found themselves at odds and not speaking due to how they chose to vote.

People stopped spending at establishments that supported the other side of the aisle, even after a long history of supporting them. This was amidst violence at campaign rallies and alleged cybersecurity attacks affecting national politics.

As ABC News noted, Republicans and Democrats couldn’t even agree which coffee they liked anymore, with Republicans tending toward Dunkin’ Donuts and Democrats tending to Starbucks.

2016 election form on the American flag

This leads us to the current day, approaching the 2020 election. Once again, stakes are high. The 2016 election saw a total 2.4 billion dollars in funding, with a combined 569.4 million dollars spent on advertising from the Trump and Clinton campaigns, and the upcoming election could have even more. While this is less than in the past elections, it’s relatively a lot considering where we are at concerning digital advertising.

You may be reading this and wondering how coffee plays a role in this conversation? Well, if you didn’t hear, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is now considering a run for President. Starbucks has long been open about its political views, but this would be a new level of political involvement and the first of its kind from a coffee company.

In the last election especially, businesses started taking sides, and what better kind of a business to take side with than something as personal as a coffee shop? When you consider it rationally, coffee shops were already political. However, many of them became straight forward about their beliefs during the 2016 election cycle.

This will probably continue in 2020. How does this affect the coffee industry and local coffee shops as a whole?

Republicans verses Democrats mentality

The Pick-a-Side Mentality

Dunkin Donuts representatives claim that the last election cycle brought them less business, though nobody is certain why. If you look at the aforementioned article from ABC, statistics they cited claimed that Dunkin Donuts is favored by Republicans.

Is it possible that this is why their business shrank during the election cycle — that Democrats saw the coffee chain as a representation of the opposition? This leads to side-picking from everyone as a show of their personal beliefs.

Election season, especially regarding Trump and the current state of the GOP, is causing people to pick up their metaphorical weapons and fight for what they believe is right. This has spilled over into the coffee industry. 

In the last election cycle, conservative coffee roasters like Lake City Coffee in Coeur D'alene Idaho and Spokane Washington actually made their politics known in a somewhat retaliatory fashion to “liberal” players in the coffee game being particularly hostile. 

As reported by

Russell Volz opened Lake City Coffee… While he considers himself a conservative Christian, his business goal is selling coffee roasted the old-fashioned way, low and slow — not spreading political messages.

However, shortly before the 2016 presidential election, he received an email from a supplier suggesting customers voting for Donald Trump should take their business elsewhere. After that email, Volz decided to be more open about his politics, and conservative customers followed.

The piece further details a woman who was “sick and tired from the baloney” she was hearing at liberal coffee houses. Namely Starbucks, and thus Google-searched conservative coffee, bringing her to Volz’s Lake City. Stories like this show how the pick-a-side mentality even affected owners of local coffee shops, not just big chains.

And why wouldn’t it? Local coffee shops are owned by human beings, with their own feelings, opinions, and retaliatory emotions. There is some irony in the Starbucks environment, however. Despite the millennial left’s attitude of being pro-local and organic, local coffee shops still have to fight for their attention against giants like Starbucks.

Dealing with a coffee giant pushing you around for your politics may drive some against the grain, as they perceive it to be. This is a part of why Lake City and like-minded conservative coffee shops made their controversial views known.

Partisan As a Strategy

Because American culture is so polarized politically at the moment, marketers have no choice but to utilize that feeling. People are looking to support brands that represent them. Take the Dunkin Donuts vs Starbucks analogy one more time: people want to go places that (seemingly) reflect their personal views.

While some brands have always been outspoken about their politics, this kind of openness was never embraced by the normally business-minded (which was decidedly apolitical). But times are a-changin’.

The LA Times put it this way:

Where once upon a time profit-minded entrepreneurs were terrified of being identified with one political camp or another, thus alienating potential customers from rival camps, today, they're embracing partisanship as a strategy. What they lose in mass appeal, they seem to think, they gain in fierce loyalty.

If partisan is a strategy, then it’s no longer good enough to not choose the wrong side — you have to choose the right one. Market research, localized surveys, and business professionals now have a new message for you, directly correlated with your revenue. That message reads: “choose wisely.”

Man filling out a form to run for president

The Growing Public Political Influence of Branding

This new partisan approach to business (and the liquid results that ensue) have actually given brands a lot of say in the world of national politics.

For instance, a corporation like Starbucks has power and a lot of it. Starbucks was already revolutionizing marketing via location marketing and cup customization. However, regarding their more liberal focus and the culture of extremism, things that formerly wouldn’t have happened are becoming the norm — like a former CEO running for President.

That’s not to say it’s all for power, necessarily. Aspirations of leadership and impacting large groups of people. Which in turn, lead folks to involve themselves with public administration on the regular, and that may be why we’re seeing so many people running for President in 2020.

Though in the past it was more powerful to be apolitical, it is now more powerful to be political. And this has given coffee Mongols and local shops public and political influence. No matter how small or large that is.

The give and take between customers and brands that this has created could leave coffee roasters to be partisan-minded and open about their political leanings for years to come. The social pressure to pick a side, along with the aforementioned business benefits of partisanism, only add to a brand’s social influence.

It’s worth noting, however, that political stakes are very high currently. Which means, coffee shops and other businesses may become less brazen about their beliefs in the future. But for now, the idea of the political coffee shop is here to stay.

Have you incorporated your own personal politics into your coffee startup? How has that affected your business? Let us know in the comments below!

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