By Erica Stonehill

In March of 2015 Starbucks launched the “Race Together” campaign, which allowed baristas to write “Race Together” or put stickers with the phrase on customers’ cups. It also encouraged baristas, if they felt comfortable, to engage in conversations about race with customers. The campaign last about a week’s time after receiving 2.5 billion impressions in less than 48 hours, the majority of which were negative and hateful comments toward the company, campaign and the CEO, Howard Schultz, himself. Christina Dorn, a Networked Insights analyst, analyzed the campaign and found that one-third of the related mentions were categorized as “hate” and 60 percent were negative.

Schultz launched the campaign as the first step in a more long-term initiative to “begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society—one conversation at a time.” But it was perceived as quite the opposite: a less-than-adequate attempt to address a very deeply-rooted issue in our society. Customers took to social media, using #RaceTogether to voice their displeasure:

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An article on LinkedIn provides three red flags for why the “Race Together” campaign failed: brand misalignment, lack of authenticity and poor reaction. I believe brand misalignment is the biggest reason the initiative was a social fail. The following infographic breaks down the diversity within Starbucks.

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Clearly, it seems ironic for a massive corporate brand, such as Starbucks to attempt to tackle such a complex issue when only three of the 19 executives and 40% of the 200,000 workers are of color.

Additionally, lack of authenticity played a big role in the online backlash to the campaign. One Huffington Post article attributes part of the backlash to Starbucks’ failure to talk about their contribution to gentrification. Gentrification is the process of improving a house or district of houses in order to conform it to the middle-class taste. According to this article, “since 1997, homes near Starbucks locations have appreciated in value by 96%, almost doubling their original price tags.” In short, Starbucks is viewed as an upper-middle class brand and this is reflected in the value of the locations. This makes the “Race Together” initiative seem insensitive, because when a Starbucks is put in a traditionally black neighborhood, property prices increase and ultimately, drive away those traditional inhabitants.

Finally, poor reaction is a risk any company faces when launching a campaign, especially with the real-time factor of social media. Consumers are able to publicly voice their opinions on a campaign and seriously affect the perceptions of a brand, whether it be positively or negatively. Unfortunately for Starbucks, their campaign led to negative connotations.

I believe the campaign had good intentions, but race is a beast that cannot be countered by a short conversation initiated by your barista on the morning commute. I think one of the biggest oversights on the corporate level is the lack of knowledge many ground-level workers have on the issue. It’s unrealistic to expect normal people to initiate and lead an educational conversation on something so sensitive. I would have been interested to see what the long-term initiative consisted of, because I think a big brand such as Starbucks has the reach and power to make a noticeable wave in the ocean of discontent within our country. That being said, it doesn’t seem as though they thought it through enough.

 

References

Ziv, Stav. (23 March 2015). Starbucks ends phase one of Race Together initiative after grande fail. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/starbucks-ends-phase-one-race-together-initiative-after-grande-fail-316043

Gebreyes, Rahel. (19 March 2015). Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ Campaign Ignores the Company’s Troubled History with Gentrification. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/19/race-together-starbucks-gentrification_n_6903060.html

Herman, Barbara. (23 March 2015). Starbucks ‘Race Together’: How It Could Have Been Better. Retrieved from http://www.ibtimes.com/starbucks-race-together-how-it-could-have-been-better-1856094

Carr, Austin. (15 June 2015). The Inside story of Starbucks’ Race Together Campaign, No Foam. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/3046890/the-inside-story-of-starbuckss-race-together-campaign-no-foam

Tran, Tai. (22 March 2015). #RaceTogether: 3 Reasons Behind Starbucks’ Failure. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/racetogether-3-reasons-behind-starbucks-failure-tai-tran

Morrison, Kimberlee. (25 March 2015). What Went Wrong With the Starbucks #RaceTogether Campaign? Retrieved from http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/starbucks-race-together-campaign/617593