Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz writes ‘Race Together’ on customer cups in a Starbucks store in Seattle, Wash. (Starbucks)

Starbucks Removes ‘Race Together’ Cup-Writing After Widespread Backlash

Within seven days of launching its newest political campaign, ‘Race Together,’ Starbucks scaled back by removing the most visual aspect of the initiative: the words ‘Race Together’ on every coffee cup.

The initiative set out to encourage Starbucks baristas and customers to discuss the issue of race in the United States as they waited for their cups of coffee.

Right from the start, social media blew up with controversy under the hashtag #racetogether. Many tweets were critical of Starbucks for reasons ranging from using race to sell coffee to the irony of a race relations and income disparity campaign coming from Starbucks, a company known for its high prices and gentrification.

But one of the largest consumer complaints about the new initiative was plain, old confusion. Some customers were unclear what Race Together meant: was there a road race in town?

Laurel Harper, manager of Global Corporate Communications at Starbucks and its Crisis and Issues Management spokesperson, reiterated that this aspect of the campaign was only the beginning of a longer-term and broader effort by the company.

“We’re not straying from what we set out to do,” Harper said. “In fact, we’re doing more.”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz issued a public letter to his employees on March 22, thanking them for their hard work, announcing the end to the cup writing as originally planned, and sharing what the chain’s future plans are.

Nick Vyas, Professor at the USC Marshall School of Business and expert in business operations and manufacturing, said Starbucks has always been a pioneer for taking on issues that are uncomfortable for a lot of businesses.

He says Starbucks has never been afraid to a step outside of the box. But, if a smaller organization tried to launch a campaign like this one, it would never have a clout to be able to pull it off, he said.

“Starbucks was the right platform for many several reasons,” Vyas said. “They are talking to people. There is a high velocity of human interaction. Plus, baristas are much more engaged in terms of conversation. They are not just like a fast food service provider. They actually engage in conversation.”

Vyas went on to say that while the idea was a good one, we may not be ready, as a society, to have this conversation, so Starbucks may have acted wisely in retracting the writing on the cups. He also said he could see no negative consequences.

“It’s mostly positive, because they did get the press,” Vyas said. “Social media engages people in the good things and also to criticize the not so good things. So you have the benefits of both situations. It did draw tremendous interest, media traffic and conversations.”

Many Starbucks customers agree with Vyas that the message of the campaign was not at issue, it was how the business presented it.

James Mason, a student at Rice University in Texas, was waiting recently outside a Starbucks in North Hollywood for his friends who he was visiting in Los Angeles. He said that while he believes Starbucks did not think through the campaign enough and was not prepared for the potential backlash, the company’s intentions were good.

“A lot of people tend to jump at any instance of insult or anything racially stereotyped or scrutinized,” Mason said. “Maybe it came out confusion, but [Starbucks] should stick by their guns and explain what they were trying to do. If they need to go back and try again, maybe that’s what they need to do.”

Lesvy Vella, an employee at Mikoshi, a local restaurant, sat outside a Starbucks enjoying her Caramel Macchiato. She believes that having conversations about racism and racial divide in the United States is really important.

“I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Vella said. “I get that some people make a big deal out of things, but I don’t see why they should have taken it off. They could have just explained it with more detail.”

Sanjana Manchala, a sophomore student at USC, was seated outside enjoying her Starbucks iced coffee. She thinks that because Starbucks is such an influential company, once it begins an awareness movement, its has a responsibility to get people to know what its is trying to achieve.

“In most branches, I have seen people sitting around for a while,” Manchala said. “And I think that especially in current days with the issues that have been going on with SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity) and the recent stuff, I think that people do have a responsibility to talk about racial issues in this country and be more open about it because it is a problem.”

Manchala went on to say that she believes Starbucks should have kept the writing on the cups for a little bit longer.

“Since Starbucks is such a public place, I think it’s a pretty good forum to actually speak about these things,” Manchala said.

Starbucks spokesperson Harper says that writing ‘Race Together’ on the cups was always the first step in the initiative, which will be expanding. This first step was intended to spark conversation.

“One of our values is to act with courage, challenging the status quo,” Harper said. “That’s why we couldn’t remain silent on an issue that is troubling the hearts and minds of many in America. We don’t have all of the solutions, but doing nothing makes us part of the problem.”

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