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#RaceTogether Grinds to a Halt

March 26, 2015

Recently, Starbucks kicked off a race relations campaign. Part of the campaign was encouraging baristas to write “#RaceTogether” on customer’s cups. After much controversy, though, the Starbucks CEO has told the baristas to stop. Was this an end to an inappropriate diversity campaign or a lost opportunity? I say a little of both.

When the company started the campaign, social media lit up. People were angry and frustrated. What shocked me is how badly we, as a society, need to demonstrate more respect for one another. What #RaceTogether generated was a great deal of insensitivity, sarcasm, and assumptions.

Some of the social media comments included:

  • “I do not need a 20-something barista wanting to discuss race issues with me.”
  • “I’m tired of all this race baiting from our news media and our politicians.”
  • “Barista: Your total is $5.45. Me: You can just put that on my reparations tab. Thanks. “
  • “Ask your @Starbucks barista why there are zero Starbucks in Ferguson, Missouri. Then tell them to enjoy a hot cup of STFU.”
  • “Stopped at Dunkin Donuts this morning, got my coffee and a croissant sandwich and no lecture on my victimhood... so winning!”

Clearly, the campaign failed because it was poorly thought out. Starbucks focused on starting something—taking action. But it forgot to include preparation, planning, and execution.

So, what did Starbucks do wrong?

Put meat on the bones. Starbucks really needed to make an internal commitment to diversity prior to engaging in a campaign like this. Starbucks is known for a lack of diversity among its top leaders and investing in wealthier areas predominantly populated with Caucasians.

Tell your story. It is not enough that Starbucks works on these issues internally. If a company wants to tackle issues like race, they must let the public know what they have been doing. While diversity and inclusion is on the Starbucks website, it is not easy to find or highlighted as important. You have to dig deep to find its statements regarding diversity, but very little has been shared on the real progress they have made or not made.

Preparation and training. The baristas were told to start a conversation that many were not prepared to have themselves. If a company wants to engage with customers, its employees must be confident, skilled, and believe in the message.

Readiness check. Starbucks needed to ready its customers. What preparation or information do customers need before you can engage them? If you ask me, this is Starbucks’ biggest mistake: It underestimated the difficulty for the public to engage on this issue, which leads me back to my earlier point…

Starbucks was not trying to give advice. There was no political agenda. Barista’s were not encouraged to start racial conversations; they were asked to write something on a cup that would encourage people to start their own conversations.

Race baiting, liberal agenda, reparations, Ferguson, generational mockery—where did all of those comments come from? Not Starbucks. They came from the American public. Our prejudices, biases, and hang ups all came out. Why? Because it is difficult to #RaceTogether.

We have so many variables that separate us, which are more than black and white. Generational differences, socio-economic status, religious beliefs, and more. Eventually, we will have to have the difficult conversations, because the challenges will only become larger and more pronounced.

Although Starbucks didn’t necessarily accomplish what they were trying to, they did start a conversation. Maybe we should let the conversation roast a little bit longer and see what brews.