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What’s Wrong—and Right—With Starbucks’ “Race Together”

By Mike Kuczkowski

Last week, the coffee giant Starbucks launched a campaign encouraging its baristas to engage customers in a dialogue about race. Baristas around the country were encouraged to chat about race with their customers and write “Race Together” on each coffee cup.

It was a bold move, not without risk, and it has drawn both praise and criticism.

How do we evaluate a campaign like “Race Together”? I think it give us an opportunity to think about what we should want from brands and how to think about how brands can authentically lead in areas of social impact.

On the one hand, I want to give Starbucks leadership, particularly CEO Howard Schultz, credit for putting its brand in the middle of a challenging social issue. It takes courage to do that, and the company should be commended for the concept and goal.

On the other hand, I think the backlash shows that the execution of the campaign was not well thought out. The company faced a significant social media backlash against both the campaign and the company. The campaign was criticized for being tone-deaf on several fronts, and the company was criticized for the fact that its executive leadership is almost exclusively white.

So what matters more, intention or execution?

I believe we are living in the Performance Era of Communications. An organization’s marketing and communications efforts only matter insofar as they engage effectively with stakeholders and have an impact.

We have all the tools for this today. Social media provides multiple platforms for real-time engagement with all manner of constituents. Digital technology gives us the ability to create content in an unprecedented number of formats — video, podcast, short-form content, long-form content. Yet, these advantages also raise the bar for brands who want to engage actively with stakeholders.

Personally, I skew toward the strategy side of brand and marketing. Experience has taught me that strategy is incredibly valuable. If an organization fails to understand what its stakeholders truly need, it won’t deliver value to the stakeholder relationship.

But caring about strategy does not mean a bias against execution. The two are linked. As the rules of execution change – less ad-driven, ‘interruption marketing;’ more two-way exchanges – strategy becomes an exercise in execution. In our hyper-transparent communications environment, strategy is on display in every turn of phrase, every response and every action. To perform well, organizations need to build new skills in their marketing and communications operations. They need the ability to create content, master channels, create connections, manage communities and adapt and change based on signals from the environment.

In that context, Starbucks’ Race Together campaign falls short. Here’s why:

  • Content creation: Starbucks created some solid content around the campaign. If you check out their website, you’ll see compelling stories about baristas for whom race is a deeply personal issue. These kinds of stories stand out, and I think they have real substance. Schultz did a video that was distributed to their 200,000 employees via Starbucks’ intranet, another good move. They are publishing a special supplement to USA Today. All good. Still, I think it is unlikely that scrawling “Race Together” on coffee cups, which baristas were being encouraged to do last week, will change any minds. And the fact that the stock imagery for the campaign (used above) shows a pair of white hands holding a “Race Together” cup struck an off note. Which underscores how important it is to think through every symbolic aspect of brand-created content.
  • Channel mastery: On the channel front, I think the campaign scores poorly. The campaign is a multi-channel effort, as described above. But the campaign has performed atrociously in social media. AdWeek argues that the Internet hates “Race Together”, and I think they’re right. Twitter erupted on the issue, attacking the effort and individual executives. Starbucks Communications SVP Corey duBrowa briefly deleted his Twitter account Tuesday after what he described as personal attacks. (He’s back, and in a move demonstrating social media savvy, he wrote a Medium post about why.) That overall Twitter sentiment was harsh should have come as no surprise. The social network has not exactly been known for fostering thoughtful discourse. But duBrowa’s response, and the overall state of the hashtag discussion suggests that Starbucks did not have good rules in place to guide its engagement in its own conversation.
  • Creating connections: Seth Godin, whom I’ve come to admire greatly, talks about the Connection Economy. I’m fascinated by the concept that mass marketing, the kind Starbucks has mastered, is dying and that micro-marketing is on the rise. A real Connection Economy requires courage – like the core idea of having a conversation about race – and the desire to find and engage with people with whom you can have a real dialogue. Schultz did this extremely well with internal town halls last year, with some 2,000 employees. But the very notion of trying to create a dialogue at the cash register with baristas whose primary job is to (quickly) fulfill orders for venti vanilla lattes seems flawed.
  • Community management: Here again, a debate in America on race is going to show a sharply divided community, and rightly so. We’re a fairly divided nation on the issue. Engaging in the campaign is going to require navigating lots of mine fields. What happens if an in-store exchange goes poorly? A barista doesn’t have the ability to shut off the store like a Twitter account. They need to be adept enough to respond to potentially tough questions. Schultz has indicated that baristas have received no special training to equip them for this campaign, and I happen to think that’s a huge mistake. Conversation guides, we’re told, are coming. Perhaps that will help.
  • Adaptation: This is a critical aspect of the Performance Era of Communications. And what I mean by it is: Can you change based on feedback from the environment? This isn’t just about communications activity, it’s also about real substantive issues and actions. And here, while the jury is still out, there are troubling signs. The campaign has not yet articulated a plan for adding more diversity to Starbucks’ executive ranks, or bringing more Starbucks to minority areas where stores themselves are far between. Starbucks has not, to my knowledge, yet pledged to address many of the substantive national issues on race that continue to keep us divided. From a communications perspective, chatting about a heavy-duty issue like race around the espresso machine when people are rushing off to catch a train isn’t practical, but there’s still time. Starbucks can create forums to take the debate away from the cash register and into its lounges. Shutting off a Twitter account isn’t adaptation, it’s surrender – but by coming back, their communications executive has a shot at showing he’s able to weather criticism that doesn’t come remotely close to matching the kind of institutionalized bias, hate and bigotry blacks in America face daily, and throughout their entire lives.

In sum, the campaign’s operations don’t appear to be strong enough to match the campaign’s aspirations. They didn’t think it through, on a number of important fronts. There’s probably still time to address that, but doing so will require a conscious effort and real resources.

Yesterday, Starbucks told its baristas that it was no longer encouraging them to write “Race Together” on cups, a move the company claims it had previously planned. Other aspects of the campaign are still in place. Is this an example of adaptation, or just further evidence that this was always a marketing ploy? Only time will tell.

Honestly, I hope they do turn it around and get it right because Schultz is correct. It’s an important issue, and there’s no reason a for-profit corporation can’t join the debate. Race is the most troubling of American issues, and the events of the past year in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere suggest that our nation still has a lot of progress to make on this issue.

[disclosures: I know lots of people who have worked on the Starbucks account at Edelman, invariably smart folks; I have met duBrowa and Schultz on a couple of occasions; I drink a ton of Starbucks coffee.]