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Starbucks' 'Race Together' Campaign Creates Social Media Firestorm

Companies, especially publicly owned corporations, carefully manage their image and messages. But this age of social media, changes in consumer tastes and demands for increased transparency have caused more companies to be bolder, especially when it comes to sustainability and social responsibility issues. One such company is Starbucks, which has often taken controversial stances on the Affordable Healthcare Act, minimum wage and now, race relations.

Late last week, Starbucks rolled out its “Race Together” campaign, which according to the company was carefully developed over several months. At various forums across the U.S., Starbucks employees gathered and shared their personal stories related to race. Then starting last Friday, baristas in major cities were encouraged to write “Race Together” on Starbucks cups, with the campaign spreading to more locations across the country this week. Starbucks also took out full-page advertisements in The New York Times and USA Today outlining the “Race Together” initiative, which was also explained at the company’s annual shareholders meeting on Monday.

Considering CEO Howard Schultz’s own personal story and the thought that was put into this campaign, one has to admit “Race Together” is a bold initiative few large companies would consider. But while the sentiment is admirable, the problem for Starbucks the past several days has been its execution.

As one local barista explained to me (who insisted remain unnamed for this article), the nature of Starbucks’ business model in itself makes a “meaningful conversation” on race a tough sell. Starbucks promises to craft that personalized coffee or smoothie drink quickly and efficiently so that the customer can either join his or her friends, sit alone with earphones on to listen to music--or with increasing frequency, to roll through the drive-thru on the way to work.

“Starbucks is an environment where we have to create that drink fast, so the customer can quickly leave or join his friends,” the barista said, “and God forbid the cappuccino is too foamy or we forgot the extra pump of hazelnut syrup.”

The barista believes co-workers would be reticent to scrawl “Race Together” on cups. “We’re there to make caffeinated drinks, not to make conversation, except for a handful of our regular customers. Even then the conversation is usually brief.”

Naturally the “Race Together” campaign fomented plenty of criticism on Twitter. Much of the criticism is unfair, as it portrays baristas as uneducated and vapid workers sparking conversations far above their pay grade. But plenty of comments brought up the fact that a workforce trying to engage conversation with a stereotypically well-off, white clientele can at the very least come across as awkward.

Much of the vitriol on Twitter was directed at Corey duBrowa, Starbucks’ SVP of communications. Soon after the #RaceTogether campaign caught fire on social media, duBrowa deleted his Twitter account, which fueled even more criticism. Many Twitter users lashed out at him for starting a conversation about race, only to flee once he was confronted with “uncomfortable questions”; plenty of users posted screen shots showing that duBrowa blocked them after they called him out publicly on social media. In fairness, however, duBrowa was subjected to excessive trolling and viciously personal statements. He may be a public face of Starbucks, but he also has friends and family, facts often ignored by social media trolls. Nevertheless, his temporary disappearance did little more than to fire the flames of mockery. So was Starbucks in way over its head, even a head like that of Howard Schultz?

As The Atlantic pointed out, Starbucks was subjected to far more criticism and backlash than companies that were proven guilty of carrying out racial discrimination. Part of the problem is that a company that is the “first” to introduce a policy or product often is rewarded with negative press and dismayed shareholders. Apple and other companies caught heat in the 1980s and early 1990s when they rolled out new anti-discrimination policies to protect their gay and lesbian employees; on the business side, Apple’s Newton, a handheld device rolled out in the mid-1990s, failed spectacularly. When Ray Anderson of Interface announced his company would focus on environmental sustainability over 20 years ago, many observers thought he had lost it. Few thought Whole Foods would succeed 20 years ago; now it is part of mainstream America. To be the first takes courage and vision; unfortunately, taking such a forward-thinking stance is often not appreciated until years later.

But Starbucks also risked putting its brand at risk by taking on a subject that needs more than a talk over a $4 cup of coffee. And a genuine attempt at jumpstarting a conversation that America needs to have was cheapened by issuing a press release followed by the launch of a social media campaign. Fair or not, “Race Together” came across to many as smarmy and self-serving. After all, the stubborn fact remains that Americans do talk about race — around people with whom they feel comfortable in their homes, or at a safe and discreet corner in the local Starbucks. We are at an age where social media allows us to have two-way conversation with brands, making the old traditional marketing tactics obsolete. Therefore, we resent it when a company like Starbucks tries to tell us what to do during our precious five minutes of latte time.

As the cliché goes, actions speak louder than words. Just take a look at Starbucks’ 2013 policy on hiring more American veterans. Despite incentive programs to hire war vets, many companies are reticent to add them to the payroll. Starbucks, however, went against the norm and promised to hire 10,000 of them. And when it comes to race, Starbucks has also showed a commitment to diversity with its hiring: 18 percent of its top 50 executives are ethnic minorities. Few large companies can match or exceed that figure.

As the recent Department of Justice report on the saga in Ferguson, Missouri demonstrated, much of what happened in that city was based on structural, institutional and systemic problems. Taking action is what is really needed. Unfortunately, the decision to have baristas serve as the messengers and risk the wrath from those across the political spectrum, while Starbucks executives were shielded in their offices, turned a noble effort into a throbbing headache for what is otherwise an admirable company.


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