The campaign is called “Race Together,” and was conceived as a way to stop skirting around an issue that continues to wreak havoc on our country, and Schultz was fed up. The plan: baristas write #racetogether on the outside of your precious white cup, and try to engage in a quick conversation. Does anyone else imagine steaming cups of coffee in mini tugs of war over questions of upbringing?
Starbucks wanted to start this initiative “to stimulate conversation, compassion, and action around race in America with the goal of encouraging greater understanding and empathy.”
In addition to the over-the-counter moments, Starbucks is beginning other more practical efforts such as hosting forums and opening shops in urban areas for which they will hire 10,000 new employees of diverse backgrounds. But the barista/customer initiative may have been a bit of a misstep; its intentions were good, but a dash of realism could have done wonders for the effort.
Starbucks. Is. Huge. I would expect nothing more than a valiant effort.
Instead they gave baristas two pages of talking points, threw some “Race Together” stickers at them, and let them weather the storm. There was no extra training and the baristas were still expected to keep wait times under a minute. There just isn’t any room for Race Together inside of a well-oiled Starbucks. So why was Starbucks’ most publicized contribution haphazardly engaging customers at one of the most inconvenient times for both parties?
Of course the media and social media ran with this and mocked the effort for being overreaching, disconnected from reality, and a form of slacktivism.
I’m going to give Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was more than selling cups of coffee. He’s an extremely socially-conscious individual. So let’s ignore the issues about how this campaign brings no extra value to the customer experience. Those are too easy to harp on.
This is an issue of logistics, communication, and pragmatism.
Where good intentions and logistics intersect.
In today’s Social Media landscape where brands have their own personalities and engage in more conversations, initiatives like this are more common. The success of such corporate outreach plans as the Gap’s (RED) Campaign or Intel’s “Girl Rising” social action campaign show that moving beyond your bottom line is embraced, and even expected, by the general public.
It should all go back to the cause.
The catalyst for this campaign is surprisingly genuine.
Employee town hall meetings were held in Oakland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Seattle. The topics that emerged revolved around the social and political climate of race in America after events such as Ferguson. Microphones were passed around the room and people shared their stories which were both tragic and uplifting.
It could’ve ended there, but Schultz decided to respond to these conversations happening inside the company.
“We’re not doing this to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.” Follow that with the community building initiatives they currently have in place and are pumping money into (i.e. efforts people can appreciate). Follow that with barista profiles. Short form documentary videos showcasing employees that are working their way out of oppressive situations. In fact, here’s an awesome video that I can’t find on their YouTube page for some odd reason.
Despite the fact that they are doing a lot of great work in the community, they decided to focus on the conversation idea, the weakest aspect of the Race Together Campaign. Schultz on many occasions has stated he knew this wouldn’t be easy, but that “it’s the right thing to do.” “It is worth the discomfort,” he said. That’s commendable.
It’s also telling that Corey duBrowa, VP of global communications, deleted his twitter account after feeling personally threatened by the backlash. Or in other words, when the conversation didn’t go their way. The barista engagement has since been scrapped.
Where is Race Together now?
Apparently they are still going forward with the community initiatives, but I can’t find anything on their website specifically pointing to Race Together. So was it just a hashtag?
In this case, it was more than a hashtag–it was an admirable goal and cautionary tale rolled into one steamy latte order.