Starbucks found itself in hot water this week after encouraging baristas to write “racetogether” on coffee cups and discuss race relations with customers. And of course their is a #racetogether hashtag campaign. Sigh.
I give you Starbucks leadership team… you can’t blame them for being so white, there aren’t many sunny days in Seattle. I can’t explain why they are predominantly men.
It didn’t help when head PR honcho at the coffee purveyor, Corey DuBrowa, deleted his Twitter account after the deluge of negative reaction. This only reinforced the perception that this was little more than a marketing gimmick and the company really wasn’t interested in a “conversation”. Euphemistically or not.
No matter how you spin it, this is not a good day for Starbucks, which to it’s credit does have real diversity programs that throw business to minority and women owned businesses. These are the kinds of programs that companies like Starbucks should be investing in, because most people don’t want and won’t accept being talked to about serious issues through patronizing slogans written on coffee cups and 140 character missives anchored with a hashtag.
Outrage in America has itself been elevated to a cause, and there may be an element of that here but the critics seem to have a valid point by highlighting the hypocrisy of talking about diversity in a company led by old white guys. Fair or not, Starbucks can’t ignore that fact. This leads to an important threshold that companies wading into social commentary have to meet, which is your moral authority. It would be hard to argue that Starbucks has any moral authority to lead this debate given their leadership and customer demographic (break down the stats on store locations for further evidence of this). Of course you could also argue that no one is uniquely qualified to talk about race just because of their skin color… I could make the case either way but what I won’t defend is the idea that corporate sloganeering will lead to positive change.
Another element at work here is that most cause marketing that isn’t linked to explicit act is in itself a sham. Hashtag campaigns have jumped the shark and I believe that people are actually a lot smarter than advertisers give them credit for. People pick up on the cues and can call BS on these activities even if they don’t do it explicitly. Advertisers should do themselves a service and ditch the hashtags and calls for “conversation”… it’s the kabuki theatre of going through the motions without doing the work.
Look no further than the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria. #BringBackOurGirls may have made people feel good but a year later the girls are still missing and their fate a mystery… Boko Haram was, apparently, not impressed by a hashtag campaign.
Companies can be a force for social good when their good intentions are coupled with policies and hard work. Marketing slogans and diversity officers that are little more than paper tigers won’t qualify nor improve the standing of companies when called to stand up for diversity as a cause.
PS- If Starbucks is serious about race relations in America, put a Starbucks in Ferguson Missouri and contribute generously to the rebuilding of that city where white and black residents are paying the price for shameful yellow journalism built on a hands-up-don’t-shoot lie. There is no Starbucks in Ferguson, I’m sure the residents would appreciate the jobs.