Crisis Management 101: Starbucks Stirs the Pot with #RaceTogether Campaign

Jan 14, 2016 · 7 min read

By Katie Meyer

Giving back: in the socialpreneurship movement sweeping the corporate world, being a “good” company can pay off. For the philanthropic efforts companies put in, their brands get a huge marketing boost. But what happens when the public believes a “good” marketing initiative is just that, marketing only?

In March 2015, Starbucks launched #RaceTogether to foster understanding across racial divides. #RaceTogether brought to customers what had been going on behind the scenes at Starbucks since December 2014, in the wake of riots from Ferguson, Missouri to Oakland, California. For staff, Starbucks fostered open forums, meetings with leadership, and seminars about the treatment of race within the company.

So why not bring those positive internal initiatives to the public?

Grande Initiative

#RaceTogether was planned as a nation-wide campaign to unfold in stores and on social media from March 17 to 22 2015. The goal? “Starting the conversation.” The effort? Massive.

#RaceTogether was launched on March 17 with an Instagram hashtag via @StarbucksPartners, followed by more than 76,000 Starbucks staff members and fans. Starbucks did not share the risky campaign on its main @Starbucks account. Common was brought on to support the effort; the endorsement Instagram was one of @StarbucksPartners’ top posts for the week.

Where the conversation started with #RaceTogether was meant to end up was uncertain, and commenters began to derail the hashtag almost immediately.

In stores, #RaceTogether was much more labour intensive: cups were decorated with Race Together stickers or had #RaceTogether written on them along with customer names. All staff were given race talking points to deliver if customers asked about the #RaceTogether signage by each register. Baristas handed out questionnaires asking customers how many black friends they had. What could go wrong?


Protests began almost immediately. Unlike other social media disasters, which largely unfold exclusively online, the picketing of Starbucks locations was particularly embarrassing and impossible for the brand to ignore.

Black Lives Matter gathered outside the Union Square cafe in New York, one of Starbucks’ hallmark locations, to voice their outrage at the corporate hijacking of a complex problem. Attacks from such a prominent activist group stamped #RaceTogether as politically incorrect, on the wrong side of the issue.

Protests flowed from the streets to the web as the #RaceTogether hashtag was overtaken by critics on Instagram.

Engagement with @StarbucksPartners declined as the hashtag spiralled out of the brand’s control.

During the initiative, @StarbucksParnters received an average of 1,281 likes per post, down from the 2015 average of 1,827 likes per post. Below, a Crowdbabble visualization showing engagement during the week of the initiative, which ran from March 17 to 22.

The campaign began with protests and ended on March 22 angry opinion pieces from Rolling Stone, Fast Company, and others. On the last day of #RaceTogether, Gawker leaked an internal memo from Starbucks with instructions to its baristas from its launch. Headline? “Here’s the Internal Memo from Starbucks’ Disastrous Race-Relations Push.”

Gawker criticized the cumbersome plan as too much work for its already strained, and low paid, staff. The memo offered an unflattering glimpse into the volume of work Starbucks staff do on close to minimum wage. #RaceTogether, an already-troubled initiative, looked especially contemptible in that context.

Tall Results

#RaceTogether certainly started conversations, but not the kind Starbucks hoped for. Discussion centred on the embattled brand, not race relations. Replies to @StarbucksPartners posts dipped and #RaceTogether posts were the account’s least popular. An initiative meant to deepen discussion had the opposite effect on social media.

@StarbucksPartners posts received an average of 78.3 comments each in 2015. As shown in the Crowdbabble graph below, 20% of posts attracted more than 100 comments.

During #RaceTogether, @StarbucksPartners received just 30.7 comments per post, less than half the 2015 average. Below, conversation depth from March 17 to 22 2015.

Even if followers had been eager to discuss racism, they may have been afraid to participate in a campaign perceived so poorly.

@StarbucksPartners’ most liked posts from March 17 to 22, aside from a photo with Common, were unrelated to the campaign.

Similarly, #RaceTogether was @StarbucksPartners’ most-used hashtag during the campaign, but it wasn’t the one followers engaged with. Below, a Crowdbabble visualization showing the hashtags followers liked or commented on the most from March 17 to 22.

As demonstrated by the IBM #HackaHairdryer debacle, social media users treat failed campaigns like contagions dangerous to the health of their own social capital. @StarbucksPartners and #RaceTogether became the Typhoid Mary of Instagram: no followers wanted to go anywhere near it.

Fear might take hold internally as well: Starbucks could become wary of undertaking other social good initiatives. The failed campaign could cramp Starbucks’ willingness to take risks, which would hinder innovation and its ability to grow — plus, the public could lose out on risky initiatives that actually work.

Not Backing Down

On the final day of the campaign, CEO Howard Schultz defended #RaceTogether in an Instagram post. The campaign might have been uncomfortable, Schultz said, but Starbucks won’t back down from important issues.

Why did Starbucks stir the (coffee) pot? Some outlets praised the company for taking on race relations, including Time. But for most, it was a failed initiative.

The goals of the campaign were never communicated to the public, and many assumed the worst: Starbucks was trying to capitalize on racial tension in the US for some good PR or to sell coffee. The public perceived a gap between #RaceTogether and Starbucks’ agenda, making the company seem hypocritical and opportunistic. What had made CEO Howard Schultz seem in touch and progressive within the company had the opposite effect without: #RaceTogether came across as a vanity project. As with IBM’s #HackAHairdryer, Starbucks’ intentions were irrelevant: on social media, customers reverse engineer a company’s intentions from the campaign they see. The process behind it is unseen, so users imagine it for themselves.

In his December 2014 letter to Starbucks staff, Howard Schultz said “staying silent is not who we are.” #RaceTogether might have succeeded if it had been allowed to blossom organically from the company’s internal efforts — its tuition reimbursement program for low-income students and training programs for unemployed youth, among others. Forcing the transition into a public campaign doomed it from the beginning: there were no obvious benefits for customers or society, so it failed as a social good initiative.

@StarbucksPartners has revived and weekly engagement has now exceeded its 2015 average. The below Crowdbabble visualization shows likes, comments, and mentions of @StarbucksPartners for all of 2015.

The failed campaign in March didn’t dampen enthusiasm for Starbucks’ red cups — the big spike in November — or the general uptick over the holiday season. With is brand damaged offline, but its social media engagement bouncing back, #RaceTogether hasn’t been fatal for Starbucks.

Until Starbucks’ Next Disaster

Rather than turning sensitive issues into stickers and a hashtag, a lighter and more nuanced approach can help brands engage with complex issues without alienating their customers. Had Starbucks made clear the contributions the difficult campaign would make, its head-on approach might have been better received.

Serving up discussion about racial tensions with vanilla bean scones was a social media disaster for Starbucks. If the company does one big philanthropic push every 12 months, it’s almost due for another one. What conversations will Starbucks start this time?

All data visualizations were created in Crowdbabble. This story is part of a series on social media viral sensations and crisis management. Look for Crisis Management 101 here.

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