Category: Branding

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.]

Jeter’s Final Curtain

By Mike Kuczkowski

Derek Jeter has done a lot of amazing things on a baseball diamond. He’s amassed more than 3,450 hits, the sixth most of all time. He’s played more games and has more hits at shortstop than anyone, ever. And, he has won five World Series rings, most among active players.

With Jeter, though, it’s not so much about what he’s accomplished, but about how he’s accomplished it. Diving into the stands face first at full speed to catch a foul ball. Flipping a relay throw to nab the A’s Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the playoffs. And above all, a workmanlike approach to playing day-in, day-out for the most storied franchise in American sports. These intangibles, more than his box scores, have made him an icon. And, a new 90-second spot by Gatorade captures a lot of what I’d describe as Jeter’s ‘brand essence.’

The piece opens with a long shot of New York City, the skyscrapers, bridges and tabloids, and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” playing in the background. (“And now, the end is near…”)

Close up of Jeter, being driven to a game. “You know what, I’ll walk from here,” he says and hoofs it to the stadium.

Girls squeal as he walks past. He high-fives kids on a playground. He is at ease waving at construction workers and autographing his photo at Stan’s Sports Bar across the street from Yankee Stadium. (“I’ve been wanting you to come in here since 1998, at least,” says Stan; “You never invited me,” quips Jeter. “Well you’re here now, thank God,” Stan replies.)

He helps an older woman with her cell phone, wades into the crowd in front of Yankee Stadium, is mobbed and signs autographs. Then, silently, he scans the retired numbers in Monument Field and dons his uniform in the clubhouse. Finally, after tapping a sign that reads “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee” (A quote from Joe DiMaggio, another Yankee legend), #2 ascends the clubhouse stairs, onto the field, where he tips his cap to the cheering crowd.

Jeter is giving us a master class in brand expression. Here are some lessons:

  • Know Your Brand: Jeter is a winner, and in interviews he often talks about that as the only thing that matters. But, winning in and of itself is not a brand value for Jeter. His brand is about effort, consistency, clutch performance and a team orientation. And in that way, his brand is built of things that we can all aspire to, even if we lack elite talent. This piece shows his accessibility, his grace, his humor and his appreciation for what baseball means for fans.
  • Know Your Mythology: There’s a shot in the video of a young boy on the steps of Yankee Stadium screaming and jumping up and down, clutching what we presume is a Jeter-signed baseball. It’s a timeless image. In an age where our sports heroes’ behavior seems somewhere between flawed and deplorable, it’s great to reconnect with the mythology of a sports icon and a kid.  The black-and-white execution makes it timeless, subtly reinforcing that cue.
  • Take Ownership: Sometimes, a brand leader just needs to take the reins. Jeter was in the driver’s seat of this creatively. According to AdWeek, it was Jeter’s idea to create a video of him thanking Yankees fans. While Gatorade roped off the blocks around the stadium for this spot, the creative director says they “just kind of let Jeter go,” which comes through in the piece. Jeter also wrote the copy for a print ad that will run this weekend (“Your grit fueled my will… you helped make me who I am”), while this spot is airing on broadcast outlets. And, perhaps most importantly, he chose the song.
  • Leverage Symbols: Speaking of which, “My Way” is a brilliant choice. Any Yankees fan knows that when the Yankees win, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blares over the PA system. I remember taking my wife to a Yankee playoff game in 2000. When Sinatra sang, “I want to be a part of it,” it expressed exactly what it felt like to be in that ballpark with 50,000 other New Yorkers. By using another Sinatra song as the soundtrack for this piece, Jeter links directly back to that symbol, striking a perfect note. As does the DiMaggio reference.
  • Be Authentic: Jeter is a multi-millionaire, model-dating sports icon, but he also has an innate ability to connect with people. It’s the strongest aspect of this piece. Jeter does not seem aloof; he seems accessible. His interactions with fans don’t seem forced, they seem real.  

It’s worth noting that there is not a single highlight-reel moment of Jeter on the field in this piece. No home runs. No All-Star games. No double plays. Just a thank you to the fans.

Well done, Gatorade. And, of course, well done Jeter. Nailed it.

Return Of The King: How LeBron James Nailed ‘Decision 2.0’

Photo credit: Keith Allison, via Creative Commons

By Mike Kuczkowski

Since entering the NBA 11 years ago, LeBron James has been described as the heir to Michael Jordan – big shoes to fill, given that Jordan is widely recognized as the greatest player of all time. And James has fulfilled much of the promise. Like Jordan, James possesses tremendous physical gifts, is incredibly competitive and has dominated his era. Each has been described as a basketball genius.

When it comes to managing his personal brand, though, James has been a middling playmaker. While he showed leadership during the Donald Sterling scandal this year, he was also criticized for lacking heart when he exited Game 1 of the NBA Finals due to cramps (fairly or not). Despite his impressive record of achievements, James the basketball star is not beloved.

Much of this dynamic can be traced back to “The Decision,” the televised interview with journalist Jim Gray on July 8, 2010 in which James announced he was leaving his hometown team Cleveland Cavaliers and would “take his talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.

The outcry was immediate and vitriolic. Cleveland fans burned his jersey. Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert wrote a public letter calling it a “cowardly betrayal” – in comic sans font, no less.

Watching that live broadcast on ESPN – along with 13 million people – was painful. Gray, generally a fine journalist, did a horrible job, asking a series of questions about James’ thought process while delaying the news about his actual choice. When Gray finally asked him the key question, James stared impassively ahead and talked about how joining The Heat would allow him to win. He appeared self-centered and heartless.

In short, The Decision was a disaster.

One way to understand the impact this had on James’ brand is by looking at James’ “N-score”, a measure of marketability created by Nielsen in partnership with E-Poll. The metric looks at a combination of awareness, likeability and influence to assess how successful an athlete would be as a brand pitchman (or woman).

The chart below shows the 2011 rankings of the top 10 most influential athletes in all sports.

2011 Most Influential Athletes

Athlete Influence Awareness Like Dislike N Score
Shaquille O’Neal 21 71 45 4 334
Peyton Manning 20 49 54 5 262
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 22 40 45 3 217
Michael Phelps 21 49 47 4 214
Troy Polamalu 21 23 64 3 165
Jeff Gordon 20 39 35 7 144
Tom Brady 23 35 40 11 131
LeBron James 20 42 33 15 131
Jimmie Johnson 25 20 47 6 72
Tim Tebow 20 19 44 13 41

SOURCE:, last accessed July 21, 2014

To be certain, James was still an elite brand. But in 2010, pre-“Decision”, James’ N-score was 261. Of note, James’s had the highest “dislikes/dislikes a lot” score in the top 10 – suggesting he was a polarizing figure. His 33:15 ratio of likes to dislikes stands in sharp contrast to someone like Troy Polamalu, whose 64:3 ratio represents a squeaky-clean likeability.

Fast forward to July 2014. James again stunned the world by leaving his team – this returning to Cleveland. From a communications perspective, this announcement was nothing but net.

I can see seven factors about Decision 2.0 that bode well for James’ brand and reputation:

1/ The Opt-Out: James didn’t wait; he opted out of his Miami Heat contract on July 1. He was businesslike about it. He said nothing bitter about the team, despite its stunning 5-game loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. No acrimony, no ultimatums – just business. Most observers said they thought this was a non-event, and James would return to Miami, tamping down the hype cycle.

2/ The Process: James empowered his agent to meet with teams, took their measure and didn’t tip his hand. No circus act. No wild road show. The process was professional.

3/ The Silence: The King’s camp didn’t leak, which is remarkable in this rumor-mill-driven media age. There were very few rumors – speculation about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s jet being seen in Miami, moving trucks, that sort of thing – but generally, James and his people were disciplined.

4/ The Reconciliation: On July 6, the Cavaliers removed Dan Gilbert’s comic sans letter from the team’s Web site. We now know this was because that same day, James and Gilbert met and exchanged apologies. The act paved the way for James’ return.

5/ The Announcement: James surprised everyone by announcing his intention to return to Cleveland via an open letter on Sports Illustrated’s web site. No press conference, no party. By using a print medium, he controlled the narrative out of the gate, again with admirable discipline. And, he went directly to the fans first before any leaks could trump his message, showing he understands they are his most important stakeholders.

6/ The Message: James’ decision creates a potential redemption narrative for him. By using a first-person narrative approach to announce the news, James humanized himself and his choice. This was brilliant. We will judge him by his love of Northeastern Ohio and his desire to bring a title back to his birthplace. (Note: while he again used the word “I” plenty, the spirit of his remarks was team-oriented.) His statement acknowledged past mistakes and forgave past slights. It was authentic, classy and clear.

7/ The Messenger: Lee Jenkins did not play circus showman to the James sideshow, as Gray did in 2010. While playing the “as told to” card was uncharacteristic, it worked. Jenkins also penned an in-depth cover story analyzing the move and explaining how the first-person breaking news happened. Props for transparency.

[Note to digiratis: The mainstream media still have plenty of clout and cred, especially to drive a news cycle; Note to old-school media types: The news broke via SI’s Twitter feed.]

King James’ homecoming will salve a lot of wounds from 2010. If he can deliver Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 50 years, all will be forgotten. Still, we don’t even know how long he’ll stay.

One thing we do know: James has learned how to make a decision with authenticity, clarity and conviction. If he and his advisors continue to manage his personal brand deftly, I expect his reputation will continue to improve in the months and years ahead.

A final note re: the aforementioned comparisons to Michael Jordan: However close to His Airness James may come on the basketball court, he has a huge gap to close in terms of his personal brand. In 2011, when James’ N-score was 133, Jordan’s was a whopping 553.

Share Button

Why Orangefiery?

Book excerpt

Two men sit across from each other at a table, one of them turning a white and orange business card over in his fingers.

–       What’s with the name?
–       Do you like it?
–       It’s different.
–       When I tried to come up with a name for the company, I was looking around for inspiration. I grabbed my copy of my favorite book, James Joyce’s Ulysses.
–       Yeah?
–       And I found this passage describing communications between two characters. It used the word orangefiery, which immediately jumped off the page at me.
–       Interesting.
–       Joyce’s lexicon is the stuff of legend. I thought about orangefiery as a name and I thought it was perfect. As a word, it was unique, distinctive and stood out. And it had a certain classic quality.
–       Okay.
–       And then there is Ulysses itself, which is arguably the greatest novel ever written. An epic narrative built on another epic narrative.
–       Right.
–       With tons of fascinating metaphors and stylistic changes and social commentary woven in.
–       Right.
–       All of which is the point I’m trying to make. Great communications is rooted in both art and science. It’s not a whim of the moment, something created by digital technologies — those are just enablers, albeit important ones. 

–       Explain.

–       For example, ‘orangefiery’ is in a passage called the Cyclops episode. And in Homer’s Odyssey, on which it’s based, the character is a warrior who falls off a roof and dies, but who comes back from the afterlife because he wants Odysseus to say the warrior died in battle, an honorable death.

–       A kind of PR for the non-martyr.
–       Sort of… and then Joyce’s Cyclops episode is fascinating. It’s a stinging social commentary on narrow-mindedness—err, Cyclops. In it, Leopold Bloom is trying to appeal to reason against a man who is spouting nationalist rhetoric, which many scholars say is about Joyce’s own views as a younger man—and how as a grown up, he regrets his youthful willfulness.
–       So, Joyce is saying he’s grown up?

–       Exactly. 

–       Fascinating.
–       And the particular section where Joyce uses the word orangefiery is a parody of a then-contemporary strand of Dublin intellectualism called Theosophy. Fancy stuff. Which Joyce was mocking it by writing in the sort of style that they used in their newsletters.
–       So, this thing has many meanings to it.
–       Exactly. Multiple meanings and layers. Joyce once famously stated that he had put so many enigmas and puzzles into Ulysses, it would keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what he meant.
–       So you liked it.
–       I thought there was a lot to it. A lot I could relate to about personal growth, about standing by principles, and about having both creative and strategic purpose in what you say to your audience. And fundamentally, it was a beautiful, descriptive word that stood out in the crowd and connected two people. Sender to recipient. Message, received.

–       What’s with the logo?
–       I was working with a friend of mine who is a fantastic designer, and when I was trying to explain the inspiration for the name, I said I wanted to convey something literary that was not a blazing fire, but the spark of an idea.
–       Nice.
–       And this is what he came up with.
–       I like it.
–       That’s a long way of saying, I did not name the firm orangefiery because I am a ginger with a temper.
–       Ha.
–       What do you think?
–       I like it. I really do. Good luck.


Share Button