Do customers really want a coffee company to help them understand veterans?

FleishmanHillard's Scott Radcliffe on Starbucks' "better questions" campaign.

Scott Radcliffe
Scott Radcliffe

One of the greatest privileges of my life was, and probably always will be, leading soldiers in combat.

That might strike someone not familiar with the military as odd. But it wasn’t the combat that stands out to me, it was the fact I served with some of the most remarkable individuals I will ever know and we used the time we had in-country to do good wherever and whenever we could. Though it wasn’t always a positive experience – I’ll always consider it my most rewarding.

That gap between what I mean and what is understood by some illustrates an issue referred to as the civil-military gap.  It became clear when I came back from my first tour in Iraq that people, in some cases very close friends, weren’t always sure how to approach me or engage in conversation about my time serving overseas. Nearly everyone came from a good place; they literally just didn’t know where to begin. I honestly can’t blame them.

Starbucks announced a campaign this week to help bridge that gap and help prompt healthy dialogue between vets and civilians. But why is a company known for selling coffee trying to solve this problem?

In decades past, it was relatively common for Americans to know or be close to someone who served in the military. With the days of World War II-style drafts long since passed and following post-Cold War reductions in the military, those personal connections are all but lost.

Today, FiveThirtyEight shows that roughly 5% of the U.S. population has served in the military. This starkly outlines why there is such a divide between military and civilian communities. Framing the issue in that way may make it sound worse than it is, but as someone who has spent a fair amount of time in both the civilian and military world, I can say there are stark differences in culture, way of life and sometimes even perspective that don’t always translate.

Over the past 25 years, military men and women have enjoyed remarkable good will from the American population at large. The U.S. military continues to be one of the nation’s most trusted institutions and that overwhelming good will is unique in today’s polarized climate.

This brings me to the "better questions" campaign Starbucks is rolling out to help prompt productive conversations between civilians and veterans. While there may be nits to pick in terms of how this program is packaged or executed, I agree that fostering understanding and inclusion among people with diverse experiences and opinions is more important than ever.

Prompting conversations about important social issues, and doing it ahead of most American corporations, is something Starbucks has done in the past. It is clearly an important part of their organizational ethos. Some have criticized them for these efforts, but the numbers clearly show it’s what customers are starting to demand of the corporations with which they choose to do business.

FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap research found that 81% of consumers say that how a company behaves regarding issues of equality and inclusiveness matters to them, and that nearly 75% expect corporations to go above and beyond to help solve societal issues. Customers almost uniformly want quality goods and services, but they also want to do business with organizations they can identify with. Put into that context, Starbucks seems to be ahead of the curve.

In the end, this program isn’t about people like me. This is about the dozens of people I’ve met who thank me for my service but don’t seem to know where to take the conversation next. A brand like Starbucks offering guidance on how to build those bridges to help more people gain a greater understanding of our nation’s military is an unambiguous step in the right direction. Other organizations should follow their lead.

Scott Radcliffe is the Privacy and Cyber Risk practice lead at FleishmanHillard. He is also a West Point graduate who served as a cavalry officer in the army with 1st Cavalry Division both in Operation Iraqi Freedom II and Joint Task Force Katrina. He also served as the speechwriter to the Multi-National Corps Iraq Commanding General during Operation Iraqi Freedom 06-08.

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