Well intentioned, but ill-fated: Marketing Lessons from #RaceTogether

My 17 year-old daughter came home gleefully a couple of months ago because she got her first job at Starbucks. She loves to meet and talk to people so we all knew this would be a great job for her and indeed she loves it. As gregarious as she may be, there is one thing she constantly avoids, conflict.

Imagine my reaction then when I heard about Starbuck’s Race Together initiative. In case you missed it, the idea was for Starbucks’ baristas to write #RaceTogether on customer’s cups and then begin a conversation with them about race relations.

My Dad head was spinning. She was going to have enough trouble managing the Venti double-shot espresso without having to also initiate a conversation about the latest developments in Ferguson with someone she barely knows.

Then, my Marketing and Branding head started spinning. Was this well-intentioned initiative going to have any chance of success? Howard Schultz is a business icon, a pioneer of Free Trade and Equity (CAFE) and has successfully integrated social issues in the Starbucks machine before (like the Indivisible bracelet, for example). Where was the structure and training to support #RaceTogether?

A few years ago, I was introduced to the concept of “Conscious Capitalism” i.e., purpose beyond profit. I love this idea. All businesses are in business to make money, but ultimately, those that focus on something bigger than just products and services have been able to separate themselves from the pack. A few great examples are Chipotle and their Food With Integrity dedication http://chipotle.com/en-us/fwi/fwi.aspx, Patagonia and their mission to Change people’s relationship with their stuff…to take some pressure off the planet, http://www.patagonia.com/us/environmentalism and The Container Store, The Organization with Heart,http://standfor.containerstore.com/.  These are all very successful brands and no doubt their purpose has contributed significantly to their success. This is because their purpose is directly relative to their business; each of their employees has been thoroughly trained on what the company stands for and one can assume most employees buy in and can explain the company’s point of view to customers.  This is not the case with Starbucks and #RaceTogether.

For generations internationally, the corner coffee shop has been the place to visit with neighbors and talk about the issues of the day both small and large. Therefore, it is not too much of a stretch to figure out how Howard Schultz came up with this idea. His brand has global reach, tens of thousands of racially diverse employees who regularly talk to customers, so why not?

72 hours after Starbucks announced the #RaceTogether idea, faced by withering social media criticism, it was shelved. I applaud Howard Schultz’ intentions, and we know he’s not done with the conversation. However, as a Dad and as Marketing professional I would put my money on the next iteration broadening beyond the barista.

There are a great many serious issues facing our country today with race relations being high on the list. It is wonderful seeing so many companies now taking a stand and using their reach and influence to bring about change and make a difference in so many lives. What we are seeing though is that these efforts are most successful when the cause is directly tied into the company’s reason for being and employees are fully trained to engage in constructive, helpful communication.

Back at home; our little barista continues to love her job. Our dinner conversations have recently covered the subject of race, social consumerism and our complicated world.

It’s a start.

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