By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
Many are aware of Starbucks Corporation’s “Race Together” campaign where company senior management proffered to promote a dialogue on race relations among their customers. The main initial manifestation of the decision was for baristas to write the words “Race Together” on cups and encouraging a discussion on the matter. Cups were also adorned with labels furthering the message.
While there is little doubt that most persons in the United States want a harmonious relationship between all citizens, there is a question on whether such a campaign is in the interest of shareholders and customers who might be put off by such practices.
For full disclosure your author owns stock in Starbucks Corporation and has a close family member who for six years worked at Starbucks headquarters but does not presently.
CEO Howard Shultz is renowned for championing positive social and economic benefits to those affiliated with Starbucks and its company. The company offered health care benefits to part-time employees when the market generally did not; advocated fair trade and worker benevolence for suppliers in foreign nations; and offered grant money to laudable social causes in the United States and other nations. Such efforts continue to bring a sense of goodwill and a perception in the general public of being a responsible corporation even among those individuals who object to the notion of large corporations having a dominant position.
Yet, Starbucks might, despite having all the best intentions, have overstepped itself on some of the more up-front aspects of the Race Together campaign.
A common mistake made in marketing and other company strategies is that the customer base or targeted consumer shares the same goal that the company leadership does and will acquiesce to the advertising method. In this respect Starbucks might have made its mistake with the latter—that the consumer would acquiesce to the Race Together campaign methodology.
It is a safe bet that the Starbucks consumer favors good race relations, but it was too risky to assert this message, for lack of better words, “in the face” of consumers.
Starbucks marketing strategy offers its customers a relaxing, personable, and “hip”, experience in addition to providing products desired by consumers. But injecting controversial or uncomfortable topics into this approach can detract from the experience, especially if the company wants to create the notion as a coffee shop being a form of escape or temporary retreat from the concerns each customer carries.
The customer might hold a political or social issue dearly but most individuals do not want to constantly occupy themselves with such matters, and this is a place where Starbucks might have miscalculated. What might have been a priority for discussion for the company leadership is not going to always be that for the consumer.
The media outlets report significant negative reaction to the campaign, mostly from the mandated interaction upon baristas handed down from corporate and the messages on the cups. Corporate, at least politely, directed employees to discuss the matter with customers. Unfortunately for the baristas this met with disapproval from enough customers that they individually abandoned the practice asked by senior management. In essence they were placed into a difficult position in wanting to please their superiors and not upsetting the customers from whom they derive their income.
On a broader scale the campaign was criticized as being opportunistic in that it coincided a contentious and churning period of race relations in the media and national dialogue. Others countered that it would be difficult for an employee to fully engage in such dialogue in the limited time available during customer service.
As of today, Starbucks reportedly will end the practice of writing “Race Together” on the cups which caused the most controversy. Starbucks Spokesman Jim Olsen said the initiative would instead continue on a broader approach and that the cup campaign was just a catalyst for the discussion Starbucks will continue to foster in the form of meetings, ad campaigns, and other forms of advocacy. Mr. Olsen stated the withdrawal of the cup effort was not in reaction to the criticism garnered but said “Nothing is changing. It’s all part of the cadence of the timeline we originally planned.”
In a company memo, CEO Schultz wrote “While there has been criticism of the initiative – and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you – let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise.”
As stated before, there are risks in making any kind of social or political statement in approaching customers. It generally works very well with those who agree with the message and is quite effective in sending away those who do not. If politics is to be introduced a corporation had best be prepared for the cost / benefit of doing so. Even in this case, those having agreement with the company could easily tire of having more and more messages being directed at them where a perception could take hold that walking into Starbucks is going to involve yet another political cause and not an environment for which customers have become accustomed. They might instead choose another competitor that offers neutrality and suddenly divergent groups begin to strangely congregate because they have found a refuge from their former coffee purveyor’s politics.
Should Starbucks and other large corporations continue to engage in supporting worthwhile social benefit campaigns? Of course, but they should be mindful of the limits to which their customers will be willing participants.
Yet, all things considered, regardless of any meritorious or controversial actions taken on behalf of Starbucks or others, millions of dollars of free advertising was quickly bestowed by the mainstream media for this campaign: good or bad. But one thing that can be certainly agreed upon, Starbucks tried to do the right thing.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.