Starbucks’ Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz announced yesterday in a letter to employees that baristas will no longer be asked to write “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups. According to Mr. Schultz’s letter, that phase of the company’s latest social–and controversial– campaign is over as of March 22, as originally planned.
Starbucks launched the Race Together campaign to encourage dialogue about race relations, diversity, and equality. But the campaign immediately drew negative criticism on social media from customers who did not see the authenticity of the brand’s intentions nor felt compelled to talk about such issues with Starbucks’ employees.
The discussion of race needs to occur, but should the barista at Starbucks be the one to lead it? #DontThinkSo
— Lee Wingard (@CLW_sports) March 17, 2015
Some have called the move opportunistic, inappropriate, and even hypocritical.
Yet the company insisted that it is not pulling or phasing out the initiative.
According to Mr. Schultz’s letter, the Race Together campaign is “far from over” and other tactics, including open forums for race discussions with employees and special sections co-produced with USA Today, will be carried out as planned in the next “weeks and months.”
“While there has been criticism of the initiative — and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you — let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” wrote Mr. Schultz.
“Our objective from the very start of this effort — dating back to our first open forum in Seattle last December — was to stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another, and then to broaden that dialogue beyond just our Starbucks family to the greater American public by using our scale for good,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Schultz defended the Race Together campaign on ABC News:
The WSJ article confirmed that, in fact, Mr. Schultz did provide internal memos that stated the writing on cups phase of the campaign was scheduled to end on March 22. The article also mentioned that according to Mr. Olson, the writing in cups tactic for the “Come together” campaign two years ago also lasted about a week.
There are several analysis available online about how Race Together is a terrible idea and I am not going to rehash all of it here.
But here is what I think is the main problem with this campaign: the objective.
According to Mr. Schultz the objective was to “stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another, and then to broaden that dialogue beyond just our Starbucks family to the greater American public by using our scale for good.”
Starting a conversation cannot be an end in itself.
Starbucks started a conversation, but not about race relations, but one about how it has no business starting a conversation about race relations, nor equality, nor diversity.
Because the objective was so poorly thought-out, the campaign’s execution couldn’t be anything other than a failure.
In a statement to Vice News, a Starbucks spokeswoman said:
“What we clearly heard from partners at the open forums we held on race earlier this year was that they wanted Starbucks to move beyond discussion and take action,” she wrote.
If that’s true, then Starbucks should have moved beyond discussion and taken action.
But not the writing on cups kind.
For instance, Mr. Schultz wrote on the letter that Starbucks is committed to hire 10,000 opportunity youth over the next three years, and to expand its presence in urban communities across the country.
Those are good places to start. Perhaps after implementing those initiatives and proving that they are working for the betterment of the communities affected, people would be more receptive of the writing on cups BS, which to me is very similar to the “bumper sticker” nonsense.
“It is time for us to take stock of where we are, what we have learned from our efforts so far, and what is next,” Mr. Schultz wrote in the letter.
Indeed it is time, Mr. Schultz.
If you are interested in learning from your efforts so far, use this Race Together fiasco of a conversation you started and use it to bring your company up to speed with workplace equality and diversity.
And in this conversation, your pundits are your best assets. They really have a wealth of great ideas on where you can go from here.