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Starbucks' Free Coffee Promotion Isn't Actually About Ending the Government Shutdown


Say what you want about Howard Schultz. He knows how to sell coffee.

In what supporters would call a brilliant marketing move and cynics might call an even more brilliant marketing move, Schultz has decided to end political gridlock in Washington by giving away coffee.

After penning a letter decrying the current government shutdown, Schultz followed up with that ultimate of olive branches – a promotion to get people into his stores.

Starbucks is offering free coffee to anyone in America who buys coffee for someone else. In a memo to Starbucks employees, Schultz said he was making the offer to help people "support and connect with one another, even as we wait for our elected officials to do the same for our country."

Given the price of coffee at Starbucks, it is not an insignificant offer. But it is also just a promotion, with a marketing plan and strategy behind it. Come to Starbucks. Buy our product. Feel good about yourself.

Related: Starbucks CEO Asks Business Leaders to Speak Out Against Shutdown

To Schultz's credit, most of the media is buying into it. The Associated Press, for instance, led its story with this glowing paragraph: "Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wants lawmakers to come together to resolve their political gridlock. And he's giving away free coffee to customers who set an example how to do it."

It got television crews heading to stores with glowing commentary, as when a local ABC affiliate damn near nominated the company for a Nobel Prize with the line: "Starbucks is looking to end the stalemate in Washington by rewarding customers who demonstrate a spirit of cooperation and coming together."

Amen, kumbaya and all that.

No one is asking, though, how getting a friend a tall brewed coffee puts Speaker John Boehner and President Obama in the same room together. Even if they walked hand-in-hand to the Starbucks on 7th Street NW, one can imagine they couldn't agree about who would actually pay, even though they would probably be using taxpayer dollars anyway.

No, free coffee doesn't break stalemates, and, as for encouraging conversations among citizens, that seems to be happening already, in Starbucks, in McDonald's, in Wal-Mart and everywhere for that matter.

Related: Big Companies' Reactions to Obamacare

What free coffee does is drive foot traffic. Americans like free things. That's most of the reason the country is in such a budget mess to begin with, after all. If you give it away, they will come. And they will buy other things, like Apple fritters, or decide to skip the free offer and get a pumpkin spice latte, which is the heroin of American intelligentsia.

So the free-coffee promotion is precisely that: a promotion, and a potentially good one. Starbucks may be wrapping itself in red, white and blue, but there is a healthy splash of green at work.

So, by all means, go to Starbucks and get your free coffee. And talk about big issues. And buy a bacon and gouda artisan breakfast sandwich. Starbucks is open to everyone. Just don't bring a gun.

Related: Starbucks CEO Asks Business Owners to Leave Guns at Home

Ray Hennessey

Written By

Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.