Why The Starbucks “Race Together” Campaign Failed To Fail

Why The Starbucks "Race Together" Campaign Failed To Fail
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Today is Word Carnival day – and that means it’s the one day a month where a band of business owners that I know get together to blog on the same theme. This month’s theme: myth busting.

And what a fantastic topic. I bet we can all pick out something (or two or three somethings) in our industry that our customers believe that are simply not true. And it’s our job as smart and ethical business owners to educate them.

The funny thing is that in my industry I feel like that’s ALL I do sometimes. Constantly battle the myths and misconceptions that are both “common sense” (but inaccurate) or propagated by less ethical or less informed marketers. These are the myths that can cost businesses time and money, leading to little or no results and often disillusionment with the process of marketing altogether.

So there was no shortage of topics to tackle this month. The challenge was narrowing it down to one.

Then the Starbucks “Race Together” campaign fell into my lap. And I realized that there are worse myths than the ones that cost us time and money and lead to our disillusionment. There are the myths that sell disillusionment, that make the internet and social media and most of the human race seem hopeless and horrible. We want to throw our hands up and give up not only on marketing but on people entirely.

That’s why I ditched my original “beware the marketing myth du jour” topic and I’m going to talk about why the failure of the Starbucks campaign is a myth worth busting – and why the haters can’t admit it.

What Is The “Race Together” Campaign?

You don’t have to go far to find a headline, but I did find it interesting that in reading people’s comments, one of the things that came up over and over was that people thought it was about a literal race – Boston Marathon style.

Alas, nothing so simple for Starbucks… this campaign was designed to focus attention on the thorny issues of race and racial discrimination in our culture and to “start a dialogue” around topics of race and ethnicity.

It started with baristas writing “Race Together” on cups, among other things, and is planned to continue with the opening of additional stores in urban/minority areas, additional work with underprivileged youth and more.

Enter “the backlash.”

Twitter loves a good lambasting, and you can imagine that the idea of discussing racial tensions over two sugars, no milk put a bunch of people into a snit. Commence Starbucks bashing. Commence screeching headlines about the failure of the campaign and the myriad reasons Starbucks and its CEO are massively delusional and out of touch with the world. Commence quoting every cleverly hostile tweet in every news story on TV, radio and print.

And, of course, commence marketers everywhere discussing why this campaign is the absolutely wrong, wrong, wrong way to “do” social media and how not to manage a PR crisis with all sorts of righteous indignation and finger wagging.

But I have a different perspective. And that’s what we’re going to tackle today. When you get to the end, I would like to hear your opinion, too.

“Starbucks Pulls Race Together Campaign”

False. Though you’d be hard pressed to read a headline that says different.

But if you go to the source – Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz who put the campaign in motion – he stated that the only part of the campaign that had ended was the baristas writing the catchphrase on the cups of customers. And even that wasn’t “pulled.” It was scheduled to end.

Yet every publication from the Christian Science Monitor (whose headline announces the “pulling back” without a single reference to such behavior in the article) to Business Insider discussing why the campaign was “doomed” would have you believe that this is just the next “gate” – followed only distantly by Gamergate and Emailgate.

The same Business Insider article that claims the campaign’s demise also published an “inside memo” from Starbucks to prove it.

Sounded intriguing, so I read it. Here is what it says, in summary (and you should certainly read it yourself to form your own opinion):

  • Baristas will watch the corporate video explaining the campaign
  • Baristas will place a campaign ad on the counter and bulletin board
  • Baristas will receive “Race Together” stickers and wear one on their apron and pass the rest out to customers, using this as an impetus for a conversation
  • Baristas will write “Race Together” or “Together” on cups

That’s it. That list could not have been more underwhelming if it tried. It’s worth noting that nowhere in the memo were baristas required to have a conversation about race with customers. They were asked to hand out stickers and start a conversation if people asked.

Here’s how I envision that going.
Some guy: “I’ll have a mocha venti triple foam latte half soy half skim upside down frappucino.”

Barista: “Here you go sir.” Dispenses absurd beverage and sticker.

Some guy: “What’s that?”

Possibly uncomfortable barista: “It’s a sticker. Starbucks is hosting a campaign to open a dialogue about race in America.”

Some guy, possibly awkward, more likely contemplating what an appropriately outraged tweet might look like as soon as he can start driving again so he can focus on his smart phone: “Oh.”
–End Dramatic Scene–

Incidentally, the Business Insider article also proves the planned end of the first phase of the campaign that so outraged people by asking baristas to write a grand total of 9 extra characters on a cup and give away a sticker. The super secret inside memo clearly states that this “cup writing” phase was scheduled to take place for a period of seven days, to end on March 22nd. Exactly as the CEO said.

So go ahead and read the headlines. Buy into the mythology that the campaign was a total failure and that it was hastily pulled due to social media backlash. You won’t find much else making news.

But I’m here to tell you that it did two things exactly right:

It started and ended when it said it would (at least this phase.)

And it opened a dialogue.

Why this matters to your small business: Big brands are easy to criticize and hate. But that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from backlash. I had my own experience recently when I spoke out against a particular marketing tactic on this blog that incited at least three “rebuttals” that I know of, none spoken in a particularly kind fashion. If people can be that “outraged” over my opinion on marketing, imagine how they might react to delicate matters of importance.

So should you shut up? Be careful not to rock the boat? Worry about every criticism and bad review and negative headline? Should you step back from expressing your own opinions on matters of small/industry importance or large/cultural ones?

Hell, no. The world needs more people to be unapologetic about their passions. Not everyone will agree with them, but if you express them clearly, if you leave the hate and “snark” out of it, someone will listen. The right people will listen.

“The Wrong Time And Place To Start A Conversation Is While Waiting In Line For Coffee”

From a tweet, one of the many that seem to pass for “news” as long as they are written by Some Random Person and embedded on someone else’s website:

Being a barista is hard enough. Having to talk #RaceTogether with a woman in Lululemon pants while pouring pumpkin spice is just cruel. (via @IjeomaOluo)


It sure is.

You know what else is cruel?

Racial oppression. Discrimination. Hatred.

Just because you didn’t like the fact that it came with your morning coffee and made you feel weird and uncomfortable does not make the campaign a failure.

Newsflash: conversations about race suck. Even the least racist among us say stupid things or get a squishy feeling inside when we’re asked to talk about touchy subjects.

The mythology here is that there is a “right” time and place for the conversation but clearly “here” and “now” are not it. You can extend this to just about anything. Pick a campaign and someone will tell you why it was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong execution, wrong idea, wrong people doing it.

Do you know what I think? I think people just like other people to be wrong. Because if you’re wrong that means I’m right. I win!

So when is the “right” time to talk about race? Sunday morning talk shows? After a terrible death, shooting or racial incident? Privately, where nobody else can hear the possibly racist or stupid thing about to come out of your mouth?

Honestly, I’m convinced that people just need something to hate. We’re living in a social media culture, one that proclaims that revolutions start on Twitter and justice spreads through the equality of the internet. But let’s not be too social or discuss actual social issues. Let’s just pay lip service to the idea of social change from the comfort of our ergonomic desks where we keep our triple mocha double soy extra hot grande cappuccino lattes with a shot of Espresso that we bought from the evil profit-driven company that made it.

Some people are up in arms about the fact that “a corporation” started the conversation.

I’ve certainly never had a love affair with corporations but is it possible to see past the imagined motives of “The Man” to the springboard this can provide? If you’re so convinced that there is a right time and place for this, then make the time, find the place, and take the conversation away from the corporations back to the people. I dare you.

Why this matters to your small business: If you wait around for everything to be perfect and above criticism before you do anything, you’ll die before you move. We’re terrified enough of being left out, rejected and unloved. And the constant yammering of Random Person On Twitter snarking about bad ideas and poorly executed campaigns is not helping matters.

There are no perfect times and places, no perfect campaigns, no 20/20 foresight. There are just imperfect people trying imperfect things. Do not let fear stop you from standing out, from trying something new, even from failing.

And believe me, I’m not preaching. I know this falls into the “easier said than done” category because I fight with myself daily over should I/shouldn’t I. I debated every word of this article because I don’t doubt there will be dissent, perhaps criticism and possibly even contempt.

But at some point you have to move or die. There are people who will hate you and people who will support you. Find the latter. Hold on tight. Ignore the rest.

“The Campaign Was A Case Of Brand Misalignment”

I read this in a LinkedIn post.

Are you kidding me?

Starbucks is the epitome of the “socially conscious” company. Whether you want to believe that’s a case of morality or marketing is another conversation but you can’t say that taking on this social issue falls outside its purview.

Gay rights.

Youth Outreach.


To me this is in perfect alignment with their brand ethics.

The real issue at hand is that people see the gesture as “inauthentic.” Apparently “authentic” corporate behavior is destroying and pillaging society. Anything done for the social good is simply marketing.

I can’t speak to the motives of the CEO but I can tell you this much: Starbucks has lost money over its social stances before and they’re probably doing it again now. And the CEO has consistently told people who don’t like it to kindly take their money elsewhere.

Is this “inauthentic?” Who are we to judge, anyway? The fact that the gesture came from a rich, white guy seems to outrage people even more. One would think that serious discussions of inequality are only the right of the oppressed.

Here’s why Howard Schultz is exactly who should be starting the conversation: because his demographic is the one consistently charged with racism. Even if he does it awkwardly, clumsily, occasionally insensitively, he’s doing it. There is nothing malicious, ill-willed, oppressive or hateful in anything he has said or done on the matter.

And he’s the one with the power and money to be heard. The composition of his board of directors notwithstanding (ie: white guys), he is not morally prohibited from trying to make sense of a difficult topic nor is he automatically inauthentic for doing it.

Why this matters to your small business: Sometimes you’re just not going to win an argument. Even when you think you’ve lined everything up reasonably, no matter your intentions, someone, somewhere, is going to find a flaw. And you will wonder as I did: “Are you kidding me?”

Accept this now: you won’t win. After I read the LinkedIn article referenced above, I felt compelled to comment and make a point about the cause being in line with the brand. That was immediately followed by someone telling me that “racism goes both ways.”

As indeed it may, but again, beside the point. Once people start pulling at the loose threads they will not relent.

Another commenter went on for four paragraphs in some weird Kantian rhetoric to define the word “flaw” (one in my 253 on the subject) and seemed to want to know if I would be willing to call myself flawed.

Um. Yes?

That is also beside the point.

The actual point here is that there is some criticism and disagreement you can address, some that will further a conversation, and some that will not. Knowing the difference is part art but ultimately vital to the survival of your business. You don’t need to justify and explain everything all the time.

You understand your own intentions. You know the purpose of your actions. You judge whether they are right or wrong and you live with yourself. Some people will come along with you on the journey (the customers and real fans that you are in alignment with) and the rest is just flotsam.

The Wrap Up

I admit, this topic got me a little riled up this week. In part, I’m disgusted that the conversation is about a campaign about race and not about race. In part because I feel there are so many race issues percolating under the skin of equality we’ve painted over our laws and (usually) our public behavior.

Partly I’m sick of the fabricated and self-righteous outrage over everything and the mad dash to post the snarkiest tweet so it will get quoted on the CNN ticker.

But in a way I’m also glad because it did open a dialogue. It’s made me think harder about what I read and how I form my opinions. It’s made me think deeper about how what I say can be construed or affect other people.

It’s made me look at how I’m being manipulated into believing certain things (think: backlash, failure, misalignment, inauthenticity) but that if I step back from the echo chamber for a moment there are actually other conversations happening.

For every person saying, “Doomed!” there was another asking, “If not now, when?” The latter doesn’t make for a good headline or a tweet snarky enough to be worth embedding on a news site. But I think I’ll join that other conversation for now, and see where it goes.

For a campaign that failed miserably, it’s got us talking. We had a discussion about it on our podcast this week and we’re having a guest to discuss it further next week.

Why? Because what affects the world affects our businesses. Because people are our business and we can’t pay lip service to “building relationships” if we’re only willing to do that as long as it’s convenient and comfortable.

Human relationships are messy and people are more than just your best avatar. And sometimes we have to do a Starbucks and think past our bottom lines to what’s right. Sometimes we have to skip the selling points and have an honest conversation.

This is mine. What’s yours?

This post is part of the Word Carnival, a monthly group blogging event where some of the smartest business owners you’ll meet get together to dish on a topic. This month’s topic: Myth busting and urban legends, including things people believe in or about your industry that are just plain wrong. Let’s pull back the curtain. You might just learn something new! Read the rest of the fantastic carnie articles here.

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

I'm a business owner, content creator, podcaster and marketer. In 1999 I founded Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio, with my husband and business partner Ralph. In 2011 we created Web.Search.Social, a consulting and marketing service line for small businesses. We also cohost the Web.Search.Social Podcast where we challenge the status quo of marketing and the Carbon Based Business Units podcast where we talk about the human side of being an entrepreneur. On any given day I wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. My true passion is writing and in my spare time I'm busy planning my early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera