Grande fail of “Race Together” campaign by Starbucks

The Starbucks campaign, #Racetogether, taking on America’s vexed race relations has elicited serious backlash on its social media. In about one year ago, Starbucks launched “Race Together” campaign to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America”. The plan was to invite the baristas in store to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and hopefully generate some genuine conversation throughout the community. Unfortunately, despite of the seemingly good intention, it has caused a big fail on twitter and aroused many negative emotions around the brand.

Glimpse of the trainwreck on twitter:

Starbuck’s own barista dissed the pretentious campaign

After amusing ourselves in some snarky tweets, let’s talk a step back and analyse what happened. What went wrong and why? How this failure could have been prevented? After all, we see examples of companies pulled off successful campaign rooted in social issues, like Tom’s, Dove, Nike and etc. Then, where does Americans’ instinctive disdain for Race Together come from?

From the tweets, we can see that people were angry at Starbucks appropriating a serious social issue for its own economic gain. This perception largely stem from the major disconnect between its brand image and goal of the campaign. In other words, a lack of authenticity. The mismatch is just so strong and obvious that customers cannot overlook. First, it is hard to convince anyone that gourmet coffee chain selling 4 dollars coffee is a good place to talk about race. Second, how can people talk about race for 30 seconds with a stranger while picking up coffee to go. Only 3 out 19 of Starbucks upper management is people of color. Maybe an internal action is more urgent than external conversation. Finally, as pointed out acutely in the tweets, there was not even colored hands in the campaign ad. No wonder many people are annoyed by the the company’s sudden concern for racial issues. The whole campaign felt awkward, unoriginal and self-serving.

To better anticipate social media backlash, there are two things that Starbucks could have done. First, we need to understand that social media is a two-edged sword. A brilliant social media campaign with feel-good elements can be rewarding, improving brand images and increasing revenue. However, there are way more failure examples than success ones. It all comes down to authenticity. A company must know precisely how it is perceived, then meticulously craft and execute a message to ensure consistency in all aspects. Indeed, Starbucks pays its employees better than McDonald’s and Walmart. But its barista still earns relatively low income compared with other industries. The company can also choose other methods to engage in the race topic than slapping “Race Together” stickers on cups.

Second, Starbucks could use some damage control. The company did not take take down the campaign in spite of the attack on social media and mainstream media. In a TV interview, its CEO claimed that they did not back down because they know race was a difficult topic to discuss, and how this topic was highly emotional. This was not what the tweets were about. When a company’s SVP of communication had to delete his twitter account because of the deluge of message, the management of Starbucks should listen to their customers and address the concerns. The lack of communication and feedback were what started the disconnect in the first place. In a social media age during which authenticity is currency, Starbucks might better off just apologize and expose its vulnerability.