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Starbucks’ RaceTogether campaign #fail

Starbuck Race Together campaign coffee cup

I’m in no way completely opposed to business involving itself in progressive campaigning, so-called brand activism, though the the cynic in me does tend to default to ‘it’s just another marketing ploy’ unless convinced otherwise. In theory I have no problem if a particular enterprise wants to throw it’s weight behind campaigning for LGTB rights for example, sponsoring gay Pride events, giving money to support disadvantaged members of society at home or abroad. However for me, any initiative has to pass three credibility tests, both ethical and commercial:

  • Does it feel genuine: i.e. does the organisation really care, or is it just a naked attempt to perform a kind of ‘down with the kids’ manoeuvre around an issue, to gain market share?
  • Is there a good fit between the product/service and the campaign?
  • Is there an genuine understanding of the issue: has the enterprise/organisation thought through the  implications and consequences of their campaign?

The latest ‘ill-starred’ Starbucks RaceTogether initiative fails all three of these criteria and a few more besides. As part of the campaign, the company ordered baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups as an invitation to talk about race with customers. In response it proved the fuse for a veritable twitter storm of cynicism, creative protest and sarcasm:

“I have a cream

“Starbucks’ #RaceTogether invites customers to talk about race. Uses only white hands in related photos: pic.twitter.com/GxQysqnghF ”

@DunkinDonuts is lovin’ the #RaceTogether campaign”

“Ask your @Starbucks barista why there are zero Starbucks in Ferguson, Missouri. Then tell them to enjoy a hot cup of STFU.  ”

and in addition to the #RaceTogether tag a new hashtag:

“Malcolm Xpresso  ”


The move was ridiculed on US The Nightly Show and elsewhere and Starbucks Sr. VP of Global Communications Corey duBrowa’s Twitter account was temporarily shut down due the torrent of comments and abuse. There were some supporters, urging caution, arguing “not talking about race and racism is certainly not the answer”, but after a week the campaign was closed down sharpish, with the company retrospectively claiming the campaign was only due to last a week anyway – yeah, sure.

Wake up and smell the racism

Company CEO Howard Schultz claimed the campaign was “was inspired by internal company forums about race relations, following nationwide protests last year over police brutality against unarmed black men.” Well maybe, though I’m not convinced. Giving them the benefit of the doubt on this it still must rank as one of the most ill-judged marketing initiatives in recent memory. It did get people talking about Starbucks but the adage that “all publicity is good publicity” has never rung so hollow. To me it just adds to a reputation already severely tarnished by their appalling record on taxation (i.e. not paying enough of the stuff). At a political level it is at least arguable that shallow initiatives around racism actually contribute to the problem. The campaign failure has even been greeted as a ‘white’ victory over racial equality by some particularly nasty racist and neo-nazi groups in the US.

More than a storm in a coffee cup

So where to begin unpicking this little mess:

In a much copied article on LinkedIn, Tai Tran argued that “Starbucks as a brand has never been associated with racial diversity. Instead, it has been known for premium pricing and even gentrification in some cities. A campaign on race relations and income disparity was quite ironic for a brand such as Starbucks. The nature of #RaceTogether did not align with Starbucks’ corporate branding, thus was quickly met with disapproval from customers on the social sphere”. In that sense the campaign felt completely at odds with and tacked on to the brand. If you like, there was a ‘values dissonance’.

This was amplified by the fact that the baristas who were meant to be leading these conversations with their customers were in no way prepared for this role – if I were a lowly paid worker in one of their outlets I can imagine rolling my eyes at the thought of having to engage my next customer in a completely confected conversation about race, equality and economic injustice; I’m white, what if they were black? “Hey man, how do you think we can get black and white to come together?” “STFU and give me a coffee I’m late for work” might be one of the more polite responses. Big authenticity fail.

There are few Starbucks stores in black areas, particularly in the US. I can imagine if I were a minority ethnic citizen thinking “here’s another white institution claiming to speak on my behalf”.

There seemed to be no strategy in place for dealing with the obviously unanticipated backlash. I find it hard to imagine how a massive corporation could fail to have a rescue plan for such events. It smacks of amateurism, ignorance and complacency. Starbucks completely tone deaf response to the fall out served to fuel the fire rather than move the conversation on to a different ground: “It’s worth a little discomfort,” tweeted the corporate account. Er, no.

“Before they write on cups, can Starbucks just spell my name correctly?”

Too big to #fail?

Starbucks will of course survive this incident. Most people world-wide will probably be entirely ignorant of the affair. However the company has been wrong-footed a number of times and it can only take so many marketing and PR mistakes for the brand to begin to smell decidedly less aromatic that the coffee. You see, although it’s probably true that most people aren’t ‘political’ in any overt sense, public notions of fairness and inauthenticity can be outraged quite easily – ask any passing banker.

So maybe the basic lessons are: be real; research; think; be prepared. Because the unexpected response can confound the best laid plans for your brand.



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