Come Together, Not ‘Race Together’

By now, branding pundits have spent more time talking about Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schulz’s ill-fated “Race Together” campaign than the planned week-long event itself. Whether it’s the social media police expressing horror that Starbucks VP of Communications Corey duBrowa turned off his Twitter account due to highly “personal” attacks as a result of the initiative, or Rolling Stone’s tongue in cheek commentary about how few African-American customers the uber-expensive, uber-elitist coffee bar attracts, Starbucks’ campaign failed for the most basic of reasons: the campaign had very little to do with how it makes money.

According to its website, Starbucks’ mission is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

It is a lovely turn of phrase and an admirable goal, and if you can get past the whirs of the espresso machines and the churning buzz of foam-making, and actually score a seat at one of the Wi-Fi-enabled tables at your neighborhood Starbucks, you may indeed find some fledgling poet, inventor or green-inspired entrepreneur nurturing his creativity over a double cappuccino light.

All too often, regardless of what products or services they offer, companies’ mission statements are strictly aspirational, with no real bearing on who or what the company is or what it does best.

Even for those of us who truly believe that companies should always strive to meet the highest standards both when it comes to performance and professional ethics, treat employees and customers alike with respect and foster a sense of loyalty through honest, open dialogue and by developing and delivering the best possible products and customer service, it’s hard to read such a mission statement with a straight face. Starbucks makes money by selling a wide-range of coffee and related beverages customized to a customer’s unique taste preferences. And if you ever have the occasion to be at a Starbucks in mid-town Manhattan or downtown Seattle at nine a.m. on a Monday morning, you know that the company also works hard to, though often doesn’t succeed at, deliver that customized service at the speed of a fast-food restaurant.

That’s precisely what’s wrong with the Race Together campaign. A meaningful, and ongoing discussion about race relations and politics, while definitely needed in the United States, is truly impossible when you have customers calling out their often highly detailed orders, and then cashiers and baristas repeating those orders back to each other, while at the same time trying to upgrade that cappuccino or latte to a grande or tempt the customer with an organic gluten-free blueberry muffin. It is also impossible when customers simply want to get their orders filled quickly before they rush off to their offices, next business meeting or scheduled doctor appointment. Even among those consumers who opt to stay in the store generally are far too invested in socializing with their companions, reading their emails or writing their next college paper to be open to a compelling and thoughtful dialogue on anything, let alone the complex, emotionally charged and no-easy-answers discussion of race relations.

All too often, regardless of what products or services they offer, companies’ mission statements are strictly aspirational, with no real bearing on who the company is or what it does best. And because of that, all too often, very few executives at those companies, including those in the C-suite, take that mission statement into account when they are developing their strategic plan to drive revenues or transform how they interact with the public or their customer base. Schulz clearly does take his company’s mission seriously and obviously thinks about it quite often, as Starbucks has long been known as a progressive company, though less so when it comes to fair labor policies. Unfortunately, it appears that Schulz’s senior leadership lacks the ability or the strength to challenge him about that mission and how it relates back to day-to-day operations or they would have told him that the way the Race Together campaign was developed and implemented was untenable and suggested alternatives ways to achieve it.

By all means, put out thoughtful, carefully prepared brochures and table tent topics about racial discrimination, stereotyping, policing practices and hate crimes on countertops and drink counters for customers to take with them or spark a dialog with each other. By all means, sponsor meaningful conversations at community centers, public schools and local precincts about what’s been happening in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere by providing the funding necessary to bring in trained sociologists, civil rights workers, psychologists, professional mediators and academics to lead such discussions. Such tactics not only will likely be received well by your customers and reinforce your brand, but will indeed get people engaged in valuable conversations that may lead to better understanding and therefore a better world.

It’s quite possible that Starbucks’ senior leadership, including, I hope, Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Vivek Varma and Chief Community Officer Blair Taylor, did say all that to Schulz, but hubris or stubbornness or just plain old fashioned short-sightedness failed to dissuade the CEO that this particular initiative warranted a bit more strategic planning and thinking. Be it a social responsibility campaign or one to increase sales, for such a campaign to flourish requires a “coming together” of your company’s strengths, offerings and unique brand attributes with your aspirational goals for your company’s long-term success.

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