PhotoThe Facebook flare-up over Starbucks' Christmas holiday cups, which were devoid of any Christmas symbolism, drives home a recent trend of consumers picking fights with businesses.

In this case, Christian activists complained that Starbucks, which reflects the progressive values of the Pacific Northwest, didn't reflect Christian values, or at least not enough.

We've seen it over and over on both sides of the political divide. It wasn't long ago that the chairman of Chick-Fil-A sparked a boycott by gay activists when he mentioned in an interview that he did not support gay marriage.

There seems to be segments of consumers, both left and right, who insist companies with which they do business reflect their ideological and cultural values. But Lars Perner, Ph.D, of the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, believes these consumers are a minority.

“Today, there is so much choice that it is easier to avoid those businesses that one finds objectionable,” Perner told ConsumerAffairs. “It is also easier to organize and exchange information on social media.”

Role of social media

The role of social media in magnifying this phenomenon shouldn't be overlooked. Today, activists don't require media coverage – they can create their own.

In the case of the Christian upset about the Starbucks cups, his Facebook video complaint went viral, drawing thousands more to his cause. These kinds of boycotts are easy, Perner says. Starbucks offends you? There's always Dunkin' Donuts or 7-Eleven.

“It becomes more difficult to boycott a firm like, where some consumers object to the firm’s labor practices, since many rely on that for a large part of their shopping, Perner said.

And the aforementioned boycott of Chick-Fil-A? It didn't last that long because, well, because the food is really good.

Food values

Food is another consumer sphere that now seems steeped in values conflict. A number of firms in the food business have sought to differentiate themselves by adopting a moral stance around how the food is produced and where it comes from.

Whole Foods' handle is “food with integrity.” McDonald's has struggled in recent years, while markets and restaurants have made a virtue of offering “locally sourced” food, purchased from nearby producers.

“My understanding is that the preference for local sourcing has more to do with sustainability in that it supposedly takes less energy to transport food locally,” Perner said. “It is not as clear if there is a net energy saving since the local climate and soil may not be optimal for growing all types of crops. For some, this may also be an extension of the idea of buying local in order to support the local economy.”

Increasingly polarized world

We live in emotional times and in an increasingly polarized world. Businesses must tread carefully though this minefield, lest they accidentally offend a segment of increasingly easily-offended consumers.

But in the recent Starbucks case, and cases like it, the company may win more than it loses.

“This campaign actually provides a fair amount of publicity for Starbucks and may serve as a trigger to induce people who go to Starbucks occasionally to go in that particular day,” Perner said.

In other words, angry consumers mounting an attack on Starbucks might prompt infrequent Starbucks customers to suddenly develop a thirst for double lattes.

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