Brewing up controversy

Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ campaign provides lessons for employers

There’s no doubt Starbucks’ most recent social campaign was designed with the best of intentions —  to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America,” according to CEO Howard Schultz.

The campaign had the chain’s baristas writing the words “Race Together” on customers’ cups in an attempt to spark discussion and thought around race.

But it quickly faced harsh public backlash, particularly on social media. Corey duBrowa, the organizations’ senior vice-president for global communications, went so far as to temporarily delete his personal Twitter account in response to vitriol he was facing online. 

“I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion,” he wrote in a post on

The campaign also drew criticism over the limited diversity of Starbucks’ senior leadership. 
Starbucks has long been known for its corporate social responsibility initiatives, said Manda Cuthbertson, director of operations and delivery at employer branding firm Blu Ivy Group in Toronto. 

“We love that Starbucks really stands for more than just profit, and the thing that really stands out to me in that whole situation is that Starbucks really knows that their brand experience is delivered to customers through their baristas and through their partners. So they certainly have a very good grasp of that,” she said. 

“Where they ran into a bit of trouble here is when you ask an employee to be a brand ambassador for a political belief. These are obviously very diverse in any group of people, let alone amongst the massive diversity within the organization that is Starbucks.”
CSR or courting controversy?

There’s a lot that companies can learn from the Race Together campaign, said Timothy Calkins, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago — particularly about designing a corporate social responsibility initiative that avoids such backlash. 

“The challenge is that you have to be very careful about the discussions you begin, and you want to be very thoughtful about what you ask people to comment on,” he said. “In the Starbucks case, I think the company was very well-intended. The campaign was grounded in appreciation for the issue and a desire to do a good thing, as well as a desire to be very contemporary and very relevant.”

Even so, the negative reaction was strong and swift, he said. 

“In the end, I think it did quite a bit of damage to Starbucks because people said, ‘The last thing I want is for Starbucks to be lecturing me on racial issues — I just want a cup of coffee,’” he said. 

“And the other issue was that by bringing up the topic, Starbucks invited scrutiny, so a lot of people started looking at Starbucks and saying, ‘Well, you are not the most racially diverse company out there, and you’ve got some issues to think about as well.’”
It certainly sparked discussion and debate, so from that perspective it may not have failed, said Cuthbertson. 

“They have been quoted as saying that this was used as a catalyst for the platform, and we don’t know whether they did that just to start a discussion or not. So, from that angle, it may not have been a total miss if that was part of their strategy,” she said. 

“In this day and age, there are always going to be critics. Is it a PR nightmare if dialogue is created? Not necessarily. But I think being prepared for that dialogue and understanding how you’re going to respond is important.”

Regardless of how the campaign was received, it’s encouraging to see a high-profile organization going all in on a CSR campaign, said Cuthbertson. 

“It’s really wonderful to see organizations really put those core values out into the arena, and to work for change. And especially an organization as (high-profile) as Starbucks, they have great influence. And I think it’s a fabulous thing to see them trying to work for social good.”

Adding value
A CSR campaign can really add value if it’s done correctly — even when the topic is a tricky one, said Cuthbertson. 

“If you’ve done the work and the research and you feel really well-prepared, and it’s an issue that you feel passionate about as an organization and that your employees support, it’s a risk worth taking to speak authentically about things that matter to your organization,” she said. 

“(But) when you ask employees to be a brand ambassador for your organization in any capacity, you really have to be sure that it’s closely related to the EVP, the employee value proposition, and that it is truly experienced by those employees in order for them to support it in a really genuine way.”
The lesson from the Starbucks situation is that companies need to be very careful about how they approach controversial issues, said Calkins. 
“The challenge is when there are issues like that, a brand can get caught in the middle,” he said. “That will have an impact on customers… and it also will have an impact on employees.”

But that isn’t to say a company should avoid all controversial issues, he said. 

“There are times when a company needs to take a stand on a controversial issue because the company has a real business interest, one way or the other. There are other times where a company will want to wade into an issue because it’s an opportunity to define their brand. Those are the ones that are particularly delicate,” said Calkins. 

“The important thing, especially from an HR perspective, is that a company really needs to understand their values first because it’s had to assess how to deal with some of these issues if you don’t really know what your company stands for.” 

Don’t shoot the messenger
Another key consideration from the Starbucks scenario is whether organizations should have front-line employees, particularly in a retail setting, be the ambassadors of a potentially sensitive and nuanced social message, said Cuthbertson. 

“It depends. If it’s really a genuine part of the organization makeup, if it’s really woven into the fabric of who you are… giving them an outlet to express that can be really powerful. But, again, asking employees to be a brand ambassador on highly contentious issues, when you haven’t necessarily done the homework, can be problematic from a variety of angles.” 
It may be something you’re better off avoiding, said Calkins. 

“You really don’t want your front-line employees speaking on behalf of the company on a controversial issue. That’s just fundamentally a very difficult thing,” he said. 

“Today, front-line employees do play a big role in building a brand, and so front-line employees are becoming exceptionally important when it comes to building and shaping a brand. So a company has to think about that, and has to give employees guidance as to what they should talk about and what they shouldn’t talk about, and what are appropriate ways to respond to particular questions.”

In the service sector in particular, there is always the possibility front-line employees might see their ill-advised words or actions enshrined forever on the unforgiving expanse of the Internet.  

“You can be fairly confident that they will be filmed frequently when dealing with these things, and they have to know how to respond in different situations,” said Calkins. 

“It used to be that a front-line employee could either delight or offend one person, maybe two, maybe three. Now, front-line employees’ behaviour can be captured on video and broadcast all around the world.”

That’s not to say that using these employees as ambassadors will never work, said Cuthbertson — it just needs to be done with caution. 

“It can certainly be done, and in some cases can be very powerful and effective for your overall brand, but it has to be done with great care.”

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