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Starbucks 'Race Together' Conversation a Lesson for Brands

leonkaye headshotWords by Leon Kaye
Energy & Environment
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Starbucks is a company that both irritates and inspires, depending on your perspective. Its recycling and waste programs are little more than laughable. An attempt to spread cheer via hashtags turned into a jeering spree over accusations it was a tax evader. But here in the U.S., it is one of the more progressive employers, offering health care to its part-time workers and welcoming LGBT employees. It even earned the wrath of politicians for calling for an increased minimum wage and publicly supporting the Affordable Care Act. The company does not shy away from social issues, and that includes “Race Together.”

In a move that is about as anti-Milton Friedman as a business can go, Starbucks has decided to launch a dialogue about race. Bringing up the emotions that have been brought up in places including Ferguson, Missouri, Oakland, California, and New York City, CEO Howard Schultz said in a statement: “We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America. Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are."

This is a pretty bold move for a company that caters to a clientele whose daily highlight is showing how sophisticated they are by ordering the most complicated drink at the strip-mall Starbucks drive-thru, so they can show up at the office with a tony white cup in their hand. And it flies in the face of conventional wisdom about business in that companies should be making profits, not statements and commentary about society.

The initiative grew out of internal conversations. According to the company, more than 2,000 Starbucks (enter word here: associates, partners or employees) have discussed racial problems at various open forums across the country. Some baristas said they wanted to make a move to raise awareness, foster empathy and encourage compassion among customers as well as their fellow employees. Baristas in large cities that have been past or present centers of racial tension, including Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, New York and Oakland, California, began writing “Race Together” on Starbucks cups. The nationwide campaign started on Friday, and Starbucks has taken out full-page ad space on USA Today and the New York Times to get the word out. So, is the company going to make a difference?

So far this campaign has been about as productive as a discussion on race relations between Al Sharpton and Donald Sterling. The company has about a 40 percent minority workforce within its U.S. stores, but most of the images I have seen feature white people — including on the company’s press release. So far I have not seen any “race together” scripts in my town, but Fresno, California is a city that was largely built on the efforts of Armenians (who were not considered “white” when they first settled here and land covenants restricted them from buying property within the town limits) and then Mexicans (who worked on the farms that were eventually sold at top dollar so McMansions could be built). The customer who waltzed in from the adjacent Coach store or Banana Republic is going to be in no mood to start a conversation of substance. The same can be said for much of the country.

The upshot is that, for the average Starbucks employee who is quickly criticized for mishearing a name over the sounds of whirring blenders and blasting espresso machines, launching a conversation about race is about as appealing as telling a customer they have run out of sugar-free hazelnut syrup or soy milk. When your day is spent with cries that the chai is “too watery” or the latte is “too milky” (complaints I have overheard), or a customer is enraged because their $2 cookie crumbled after warming (when they were warned it would crumble), talking about race is not going to happen. Plus those same customers are often in a hurry because they have to rush and grocery shop in that nearby purveyor of fine goods for wealthy white people, Whole Foods. As one publication explained, perhaps Starbucks is not the place for this conversation to happen.

By the way, a tweet I came across mentioning the white hands in this “Race Together” campaign has produced its own snark, with one guy retorting, “Y'all realize that every commercial on TV that has a burglar is always a white guy now, right?” And that is just the start of it. You cannot blame Starbucks for trying, as it is a bolder move than most companies would be willing to make on a subject that makes many people uncomfortable (unless they are in an online forum). But based on the history of brands trying to launch a conversation, especially with social media, you cannot be surprised the effort is failing. But at least the satire on Twitter and elsewhere is amusing.

Image credit: Starbucks

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye, Executive Editor, has written for Triple Pundit since 2010. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media, and the Editor in Chief of CR Magazine. His previous work can be found at The GuardianSustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas.

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