Should Starbucks Just Brew Coffee And Not Controversy?

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

200px-Starbucks_Coffee_Logo.svgMany 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.

race-together-starbucks-cupStarbucks 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


Starbucks Corporation

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.

187 thoughts on “Should Starbucks Just Brew Coffee And Not Controversy?”

  1. [Thank you Moderator! I edited out the author’s naughty words!]

    This is race related. J H Kunstler wrote a fantastic blog piece today comparing us Americans to Michael Brown. Here is the post in its entirety, with the link to its reposting on Zerohedge, because I think me linking directly to Kunstler’s website is probably what kept this from posting a few minutes ago. He puts up a new post every Monday, and he is such a curmudgeon that that I laugh even when I disagree with him on some stuff. Anyway, the html paragraphing function does not seem to work, so let me try again:

    I begin to understand why the death of Ferguson, Mo, teen Michael Brown sent such shock waves through America last year. He truly symbolized our country: an overgrown, oafish, wannabe thug making one bad choice after another until his final, suicidal lurch against authority — followed by all the exculpatory lying on his behalf: the “gentle giant,” hands up, don’t shoot! This is exactly how America acts on the world stage these days. We are the Michael Brown among nations, high on exceptionalism, stoned on entitlement, swaggering moronically from one place to another grabbing what we feel like, smashing things up as we go.

    Also, as in the case of the actual Michael Brown, supposedly sentient observers do not have the guts to call bull[poop] on all the excuses we make for ourselves. Has any self-styled presidential candidate made a peep about America’s idiotic campaign to make Ukraine the 51st state? Has Hillary (“It’s Her Turn”) Clinton asked publically why the US is egging on NATO to stage military exercises on the Russian border? Do we still have a senate Foreign Relations Committee, and does it convene once in a while? Is The New York Times so preoccupied with its “Gay Cities” index it forgot that the world is full of serious conflicts and hazards that extend beyond the choosing of apartment décor?

    Likewise, there are obvious reasons why we’re so busy demonizing Vladimir Putin. He’s the only serious adult on a stage full of special ed students. When Vlad goes on vacation what does the American media do? It launches into raptures of speculation about his “love child” — because in this country any political leader foolish enough to step out of the spotlight for a few minutes will be gleefully unmasked as a “cheater,” a lothario (because, despite our ultra-pornified 24/7 twerk-o-rama culture, we apparently think sex is bad), so then the peanut gallery can enjoy the grotesque spectacle of apology and the inevitable punishment that follows despite any apologies. Vlad walked out of a winter Olympic venue fourteen months ago and said, simply, “I’m divorcing Lyudmila….” End of story. Oh, and Vlad also doesn’t subscribe to the current American notion that being homosexual is a major life achievement. That truly offends!

    This also explains America’s obsession with cartoon superheros, and especially characters who enjoy high-tech prosthetics for projecting power — all those robo-soldiers and cops, and the fabulous American Sniper with his thousand yard kill-shot. Without all this magic we’d be revealed as weaklings, our vitality sapped by decades of Froot Loops, Cheez Doodles, and Pepsi, our brains shriveled by untold hours of conditioning by way of Grand Theft Auto, Dark Souls II, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. What do foreign leaders think when they have concluded their mystifying sessions with our Secretary of State, the haircut-in-search-of-a-brain, John Kerry. Do they look around the floor of their ministerial offices to see if any sawdust leaked out of his head?

    Has anyone actually looked around and noticed what a scabrous sight American towns and cities present these days? There are places here in the old Yankee northeast that Borat would be ashamed to call home. We live amidst so much delaminating plastic it’s a wonder that virtually everybody doesn’t have cancer. The squalor is awesome, and to make matters worse, we’re even too lazy to clean up the stuff that is just lying around on the ground — and certainly too lazy to try to grow anything in that ground if it didn’t promise to grow up looking like a pepperoni stick or a corn dog.

    America’s moment of getting kicked to the curb by other nations is at hand. I don’t think it will be a kinetic war, not right away, but it will be a hearty financial beat-down, and many of the members of our insane clown posse in Europe are going to feel the beat-down, too. America tried, at the very last moment, to join the new BRICs development bank. Who finally decided that? Barack Obama? John Kerry? Jack Lew: the Three Stooges? Get gold. If you can.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. Squeeky Fromm, Girl Reporter

      Thank you for sharing that piece and I truly missed you through the Michael Brown Debacle as I was going through personal changes then as I grew up in Ferguson. It was always an awful town when it came to Law Enforcement being part and parcel of the corrupt St. Louis Democratic Machine. Surely you remember Last August when Mayor Slay turned off the Web Cams in the City and said we should expect “a little violence”

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