Race Together: Starbucks Racing Backwards?

starbucks jonah engler

There are many leaders in this country calling for a “national conversation” about race. More importantly, there appear to be millions of people ready to have that conversation. That combination could trigger a sea change in race relations in the United States. Or, if handled poorly, it could take what it’s trying to fix and break it even more. At least one company is already learning that lesson the hard way.

Starbucks is no stranger to controversy, even to engaging in political wrangling. Their frequent stances on liberal issues have made the brand a counterpoint to the conservative block’s love of Chick-Fil-A. But in this latest gambit, CEO Howard Schultz and Starbucks may have stepped in the wrong place at the wrong time.

See, messaging is not just about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of what you are promoting or denigrating. It’s about the “when” and “why” of it. And, of course, the “how.” In this case, Starbucks has failed to meet these three standards…at least according to customer reaction.

As formulated, Starbuck’s “race together” campaign was intended to begin a national conversation about race. One method of pushing this dream forward was to have baristas write the phrase “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups. The company also promised to publish “conversation guides” on the topic, pamphlets with “starter questions” such as “How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?”

Now, aside from asking an entire generation to tacitly accuse their parents of racism, those ice breaker questions may have come across all well and good…in another context. But Starbucks chose to ask their often distracted and rushed customer base to begin those conversations not when THEY were ready to engage in them, but when some random barista chose to foist that “issue” on them. As you might imagine, millions on social media did not take this suggestion well.

The result is that Starbucks is in a battle to redeem its brand from charges that range from naiveté to crassly manipulating racial tensions to make more money. Now, instead of generating the conversation Schultz says he wants to have, the company – and its executives – and according to NY entrepreneur Chris Burch “are defending themselves from the rapid fire criticism cannon that is social media.”

Right out of the gate Starbucks is insisting their intentions are pure. They said they expected to be criticized but never wanted to create problems for their customers. The problem, of course, is that you may be able to control the conversation, but you cannot control the reaction to the conversation. Particularly when you are demanding a reaction from people who would rather not discuss it in the first place.

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