Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

leonkaye headshot

Hijacked Starbucks Twitter Campaign in the UK Ends Up an Epic Cluster F-F-F Frappuccino

Words by Leon Kaye

Starbucks United Kingdom suffered an epic social media fail when a limey in the regional office decided it would be a good idea to have a warm and fuzzy chain with the hashtag, #spreadthecheer.

It sure seemed like a good idea at the time: after all, who would not want to share in the fun of having a 2% organic soy, extra hot, hold-the-foam, one Splenda, one Equal, sugar-free caramel brulée latte. Especially in London, where all that milky sugary earl grey tea gets old after a while and the fun of going to a pub is gone since smoking has been banned.

Unfortunately if that Starbucks social media marketing maven had read Jen Boynton and other 3p writers, embarking on a Twitter campaign risks public humiliation and the loss of your brand messaging. Just ask McDonald’s and Qantas about Twitter campaigns gone wrong. Instead, visitors to the Natural History Museum in London were treated to a delicious gift that kept on giving.

Starbucks UK had sponsored a temporary ice rink at the museum that featured a screen above showing warm and fuzzy tweets. Unfortunately, plenty of cheer was spread around because someone failed to prescreen the tweets before they floated above the ice skaters. The result was a blizzard of catcalls in 140 characters or less that jeered the company over allegations of tax dodging and unfair wage and hiring practices. Media outlets in the UK including The Telegraph have called out Starbucks UK for paying only £8.5 million ($13.8 million) in taxes on revenues of £3 billion ($4.9 billion) since 1998. Yesterday the company bowed to outrage and agreed to pay an additional £20 million in tax. In a country where the tax burden falls heavily on individuals, the outcry over Starbucks and other firms’ tax non-payments has reached a point where Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (who himself faced outrage over his taxes) acknowledged growing public anger over the issue.

Of course some of the jeers were unfair. Just because someone owns an independent coffee shop does not mean he or she is any more or less ethical than Starbucks--and around the world, most coffee houses exist because of Starbucks; imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. Plus a business owner who does not have two sets of books is a fool. And here in the U.S., Starbucks is a better option for college students and single moms who struggle to get by and more importantly, score affordable health care. Though in fairness, that creepy bunny that has been part of Starbucks’ holiday campaign has got to go, and the ugly $40 holiday tumbler for the $70 of coffee in January makes Groupon look like a good deal.

The upshot is companies who consider Twitter campaigns to promote their brands do so at their own peril. Even if someone at Starbucks UK had shown up on the job and screened those embarrassing tweets, the public mocking would have still gone viral across the pond. Brands who seek more exposure via Twitter had better be careful for what they wish for. They may end up actually having to toe the corporate social responsibility line.

The writer typed this article from a Starbucks.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Image credit: Twitter

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye

More stories from Investment & Markets