Starbucks Does It Again With Oleato - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Starbucks Does It Again With Oleato
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What can you say about a 52-year-old multinational behemoth that caused intestinal distress in its clientele? That it didn’t test the product first?

In Italy in February, Starbucks introduced a new suite of products named Oleato. Speaking with near-cosmic euphoria, interim CEO Howard Schultz gushed over “ the next revolution in coffee that brings together an alchemy of nature’s finest ingredients – Starbucks arabica coffee beans and Partanna cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.”

But you don’t need to be a Nobel laureate in biochemistry to know that caffeine is a stimulant and olive oil is a relaxant. Some customers have complained that the spoonful of olive oil in these drinks causes them to run to the loo: “Dov’è la toilette?” as one might say in Milan. No doubt Starbucks is trying to do the right and virtuous thing by promoting a substance believed to have beneficial effects on blood pressure and the cardiovascular system — but the situation is more complicated than that.

While the media may lampoon Starbucks for its biological miscalculation, and while the attention of Sen. Elizabeth Warren may shift from the nation’s banks to intestinal malaise caused by her so-called “giant corporations,” we must nonetheless evaluate this initiative of Starbucks as part of a pattern: the company tends to overrun its headlights with ego-driven, corporate zeal in a desire to signal its virtue and facilitate dialogue on social policy.

Indeed, virtue signaling by Starbucks is not just a casual whim, but rather is a well-articulated corporate policy. As I have written in The American Spectator, the company’s 10-K, a form filed annually with the Securities Exchange Commission, portrays a “people-positive” and “planet-positive” enterprise that emphasizes the environment, extensive benefits, and pay equity.

First, it is well known that in 2015, Starbucks suggested that its customers strike up conversations with their baristas about race. This idea was rejected by the media and then withdrawn by the company. The idea of bringing up race was seen as a preposterous attempt to be in the vanguard of social change. One may wonder why Starbucks didn’t also suggest that customers ask baristas to talk about their sexual preferences.

Second, with its bright, internal architecture, the company created an egalitarian, open forum where idealistic, young clientele could associate — perhaps to discuss how to reform democratic capitalism and society at large. Starbucks became the natural habitat for sensitive aficionados of the bean seeking refuge from microaggressions and the societal hurly-burly of buying and selling to compete. In due course, however, this layout was overtaken by strangely changing consumer habits: the new tilt was “grab and go” and not social association. This mysterious corporate phenomenon may go down in history with the cause of English crop circles, Stonehenge, and the retreat of the Mongols from Eastern Europe in 1242 A.D. While many Starbucks stores have been reconfigured for takeout, the question of how the company was late to the trend raises questions about its strategic planning efforts, in which consumer preferences are at or near the starting point.

Finally, the prop wash from the launch of Oleato suggests that corporate zeal and narcissism overtook a measured evaluation process for new products. Typically, companies test new products and platforms with employees or others who are guinea pigs, and they may launch in an obscure market so that product failures will not be so obvious. However, Oleato was launched in Milan, a leading European locus of coffeehouses.

While this negative PR may soon pass, no company wants its products to be an unintended laxative. In the future, some clientele may say, “Barista, barista a shot of Pepto-Bismol with that Oleato please.”

Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, the University of Chicago, and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.

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