Paul Holmes

Controversy is an acceptable by-product for a company that stays true to its core values

Controversy is an acceptable by-product for a company that stays true to its core values

Years ago, Benetton came under fire from victims' rights groups and conservative media for an advertising campaign that featured interviews with death-row inmates.

The designer responded to critics by insisting that it would stick to its guns. It believed that it should use its advertising to draw attention to important social issues, even if it caused controversy. But one of Benetton's major distributors, Sears, took exactly the opposite position: It dropped the brand from its stores.

In the wake of that controversy, I was asked several times which company was right. My answer then - and now - was quite simple: both. Benetton was right because it understood its consumers expected it to be hip and edgy. Sears was right because its customers expected something quite different. In other words, PR is not a one-size-fits-all discipline, and being true to your brand persona is more important than trying to please everyone.

Which leads to this week's column, which praises two equally different companies for understanding their customers - and not avoiding controversy.

Starbucks has been taking heat from the Concerned Women of America, a Christian women's group, due to a quote from author Armistead Maupin that appears on its coffee cups. The quote is one of a series designed to engage coffee drinkers and spark discussion. It is controversial as it deals with the author's homosexuality. "I surrendered my youth to the people I feared when I could have been out there loving someone," the quote reads. "Don't make that mistake yourself. Life's too damn short."

"If you think back to the history of the old coffee houses, before the internet, these were places to converse," a Starbucks spokeswoman told the Seattle Times. "That's part of what the coffee culture has been for a century or more." In addition, she says, "Embracing diversity... is one of the guiding principles of our corporation."

It's hard to imagine any core Starbucks customer being offended by the quote, which is entirely consistent with the brand's positioning and the company's values. Similarly, it's hard to imagine any of Wal-Mart's regulars being troubled by the mass retailer's own political stance on issues such as appropriate gender roles.

The company banned the sale of T-shirts with the slogan, "Someday a woman will be president," claiming the message "goes against Wal-Mart family values." But it's far more comfortable selling The Truth About Hillary, the salacious biography by Edward Klein that attempts to portray would-be president Hillary Clinton as a lesbian.

Not everyone will agree with Wal-Mart's politics, or its definition of family values, but I suspect that like Starbucks, when it comes to understanding its customers' values, it's second to none.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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