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Starbucks’s Race Together: Why The Naysayers Have It All Wrong

Rather than scowl at CEO Howard Schultz’s bold attempt to further the race dialogue, we should admire his tenacity and modern corporate leadership.

Starbucks’s Race Together: Why The Naysayers Have It All Wrong
[Top photo: David Ryder/Reuters/Corbis. Others: via Starbucks]

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the past week, you probably have heard about Starbucks’s Race Together initiative. From the Washington Post‘s “Starbucks CEO has a terrible idea to fix race relations” to The Economist‘s “Starbucks and branding: #Fail” to Ad Week‘s “The Internet Is United in Despising Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ Cup Campaign,” the media criticism has been fierce and unrelenting. A quick scan of social media doesn’t yield a much better response; the majority of comments are negative and downright cutting, declaring the campaign a major fail. Over the weekend, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said baristas would stop writing #RaceTogether on coffee cups.

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Call me a contrarian, but I think the naysayers reacted too fast and have it all wrong.

Rather than scowl at Schultz for his attempt to further the dialogue around race, we should admire and congratulate him for his tenacity. Starbucks and its partner USA Today have launched an important and courageous initiative that deserves praise, not scorn.

My praise centers around three main arguments:

Responsiveness

The campaign emerged out of a series of employee town halls in Oakland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Seattle. What was discussed–Ferguson and the broader issues of race relations–was real and sincere. Rather than leave it as a private conversation, the company decided to respond, engaging its 200,000 employees (40% are from a visible minority) and millions of customers in an initiative to stimulate a conversation and action around race in America.


Leadership

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Tackling difficult social issues in the public domain as CEO of a multinational corporation is no easy feat. Howard Schultz hit it head on. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, and he didn’t shy away from the controversy. He tackled race relations directly, knowing it was an important issue for his company to discuss. Paul Polman has done the same at Unilever, as has Richard Branson at Virgin. These are leaders who understand voicing their ideas and views on social issues is a requirement of corporate leadership in the 21st century. Business and social impact go hand in hand.

Reach

There are 4,700 Starbucks stores in the U.S., serving millions of customers each day. Combine this with USA Today’s daily circulation of almost 2 million, and you have a very large and wide channel with which to engage people in a meaningful conversation. People don’t interact with government or charity as frequently as they do their favorite brands, so why not use this channel for something more than just a latte and scone? Why not leverage Starbucks stores for meaningful dialogue around race?

Not convinced? Then let’s tackle the main criticisms leveled at this campaign.


It’s A Self-Serving Cause-Marketing Ploy

Many have argued that Starbucks has no business wading into the race discussion (it’s not the role of the company), and, therefore, must be doing this simply to generate PR and sales by leveraging a hot-button social issue. They go further by arguing it’s “cause marketing gone bad” because it’s not an issue one naturally associates with the coffee company. This argument is misguided on two fronts.

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First, this negative “opportunistic” lens is related to the belief that companies cannot profit by “doing good.” It seeks to maintain a division between profit and purpose, holding onto an “old charity mindset” that motivations must be pure and selfless. This is not how millennials think, nor is it how people interested in creating large-scale social impact go about their business. We need to evolve beyond the outdated view that charities “do good” and companies make money.

Second, a dialogue around race does fit with the Starbucks brand, as its stores are a place for dialogue, and possibly even debate. Why shouldn’t people discuss race in a coffee shop?


Lack Of Diversity Among The Senior Ranks

There is a lack of diversity among the senior leadership of the company. But why is this an argument for Starbucks not to engage in a dialogue around race? Should no company, organization, or government take action if its internal reality is not next to perfect? If we all live in glass houses and set the bar too high, we risk never doing anything important that is controversial, uncomfortable, or challenging. As the old saying goes, “don’t let perfection be the enemy of good.”

Baristas Serving Up Race Dialogue

This is the one area where the naysayers are right. The major flaw with this campaign was in its early execution. Writing #RaceTogether on cups–and thus placing the onus on the barista to have the conversation–didn’t make a lot of sense. People want their coffee, and they want it quickly. A dialogue on a complex issue, especially during the morning rush, doesn’t work, and risks making everyone feel uncomfortable. But using Starbucks locations to host conversations about race with community experts and interested citizens would work, and could really open up the conversation. And it’s not too late to do so.

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As of this weekend, Starbucks’s announcement that it is no longer writing #RaceTogether on cups is an acknowledgement that it may have messed up in early execution. This should not be seen as an acknowledgement of defeat, but a simple correction.

Race Together is an honest, sincere, and bold attempt by a CEO and multinational corporation to tackle an important issue. And much like the issue itself, this move has created a lot of controversy, tension, and disagreement.

It takes courage for leaders to tackle pressing social issues, especially when there is little financial upside in doing so. So before we write off Race Together as a “PR disaster,” take a closer look at what Schultz has started: engagement among employees and customers on a pressing and difficult social issue; conviction to start a conversation even when their own internal realities are less than perfect; fortitude to go big and leverage all their stores and channels to take on the issue; and courage to not blink but stay the course in the face of controversy.

More and more leading companies are blurring the line between profit and purpose, taking bold steps to tackle pressing social issues and generate meaningful social change. It’s not easy and it can be messy. Starbucks’s latest foray is a step in that direction.

About the author

Phillip Haid is the Co-Founder and CEO of PUBLIC Inc., a Toronto based cause-marketing agency and incubator that believes profit & purpose should go hand-in-hand. PUBLIC is working with corporations and charities across North America to redefine “social good” and bring a new approach to cause marketing.

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