#RaceTogether: Big Fail or Real Opportunity?

4 min read

What were they thinking?

When it comes to the Race Together campaign—in which Starbucks invited its employees (or “partners”) to write the words “Race Together” on customers’ cups in order to encourage dialogue about race—there’s been no shortage of thoughtful criticism, even within the space constraints imposed by Twitter. Most tweets have focused on the company’s connection to gentrification, its lack of leadership diversity, and the fact that its baristas seem to have trouble spelling all but the most Anglo-Saxon of names on customers’ cups.

Did Starbucks intend to start this conversation by offering itself as a lightning rod? They may ultimately try to spin it that way, but given how unprepared they seemed for the rapid backlash, it seems doubtful. Senior VP of communications for Starbucks, Corey duBrowa, ended up deleting his Twitter account due to what he termed personal attacks (though several on Twitter reported being blocked by duBrowa for simply pointing out the misguidedness of the campaign).

How did it go wrong? A recent piece by Tai Tran on LinkedIn gives a marketer’s perspective: The campaign didn’t fit Starbucks’ upscale brand, it felt much more forced than authentic, and the response to the backlash was weak at best, or, in duBrowa’s case, inflammatory. The campaign ended on Sunday, purportedly as planned, but CEO Howard Schultz vowed that its next phases are “far from over.” In addition to more open forums, Starbucks is planning three special sections of USA Today to focus on racial issues.

So, Starbucks. If you aren’t planning to sweep this one under the rug, how can you ensure that the next phase of the campaign goes better? Some modest suggestions:

1. Realize that you do coffee, and hospitality, really well.

Do you and your employee-partners have valid perspectives on race? Absolutely. As well as valid perspectives on Pluto, baseball, kangaroos, and classical music. While I agree that open and honest conversation about race (or difference, or diversity, or racism, or however you want to frame it) should happen more often, what your company is best qualified to do is supply coffee. Get in touch with organizations and events that are already addressing issues of race and offer to provide free Pike Place and pastries.

2. Find people who have something they want to say, and help them say it.

I believe, as I’m sure you do, that children are our future. If you want to reach young people, or really anyone under forty, is a special section in USA Today your best bet? And do I really have to point out that corporate-sponsored news, inevitable though it may seem, is even more obviously inauthentic?

Why not lend your financial support to those who can talk about the issue more specifically and authentically? Solicit reflective essays on race to be published on your cups, or on the login page of your wi-fi. Fund filmmakers who want to take on the issue, maybe something like this recent documentary by Geeta Gandbhir and Blair Foster.

Also, have a look at this story by black cartoonist Ronald Wimberly, about the time he was asked to lighten a comic book character’s skin tone from #c39e73 to #f8e0a1.

In 12 years working in comics, he writes, “I’ve yet to have a black editor.” You, Starbucks, could start a comic-book imprint, staff it with editors of all hues and persuasions, and sell the comics in your stores. It doesn’t exactly fit your brand identity, but maybe, being Starbucks, you can afford to think outside the box.

You just have to think harder.

3. Realize that you can’t tackle this head on, because it’s got too many heads.

“Race” isn’t one issue. It’s a host of them. It’s a bunch of historical issues. A bunch of cultural issues. A bunch of economic issues, criminal justice issues, and educational issues. Can we benefit from having conversations about all of these? Absolutely. Can we do that productively in a thirty-second chat over the sound of foaming milk? Or by reading a four-page insert in a newspaper, or one blog post, or a single media campaign?

To the extent that your intentions are good, we applaud you. To the extent that we have begun to talk about the difficulties of talking about race, thanks in part to your clumsy first steps, we thank you.

The thing is: You’re Starbucks. We all know that you don’t have to get this right. Most of us will keep buying your coffee anyway. We need your caffeine and your generous allotment of counter space made from reclaimed, urban wood. That’s all the more reason that, if you’re serious about wanting to make a difference, you need to get this right. Otherwise, we’ll know it was all about you from the start.

Furthermore, don’t listen to me. I’m just a copywriter with some half-brewed opinions and a blog to write. Find a bunch of people who have been working on these issues full time, for a long time, and ask them how you should approach it.

Or just reach out to your critics on Twitter. They’re clearly trying to start a conversation about race with you. Why not listen?

Photo by MarkSweep (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARoasted_coffee_beans.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.