Lessons From The Starbucks Campaign Disaster

Brook Zimmatore | May 15, 2015

Starbucks, like Apple, usually has campaigns that are a huge hit. Like Apple, Starbucks is not without controversy, but in most ways, their campaigns make a significant impact in their target demographic. But Starbuck’s “Race Together” campaign is a shining example of the fact that even the best marketing and PR departments can sometimes screw up.

In March 2015, Starbucks announced the Race Together Initiative. The purpose was to inspire Americans to start a dialogue about race, race relations, and racism throughout the country. Starbucks announced that baristas would write “Race Together” on coffee cups with the goal of triggering conversation with the customers. In the wake of Ferguson, and with about 40% of the Starbucks barista staff comprised of racial minorities, Starbucks’s leadership felt it was necessary to begin a conversation about racism.

The move was roundly criticized. Many criticized the move as a crass publicity stunt. Others felt that Starbucks should remain neutral on political issues (although Starbucks has never done so). Many people felt that baristas were ill-equipped to discuss matters of race, or that these conversations would slow the service and create problems in a fast-paced environment.

The Response from Starbucks

One would think that such a disastrous reception for a major campaign would negatively impact the Starbucks brand. However, that wasn’t the case. While the CEO, Howard Schultz, acknowledged the controversy, Starbucks reported above average earnings in the most recent quarter. Their stock price rose to a 12-month high following the campaign (although that probably had more to do with the 2-for-1 stock split). Clearly, Starbucks didn’t suffer as a result of their controversial and unpopular campaign.

To Backpedal or Move Forward?

Whenever your company faces a major backlash, you have two options: backpedal or double down. In the case of Starbucks, they conveniently opted to do a combination of both. With Starbucks’s backlash, it was virtually impossible for them to back away fully. After all, they were taking a stand against racism; you can’t really back down from a strong position like that. So they opted to lean in.

Starbucks says that writing “Race Together” on coffee cups was only the first phase in their Race Together Initiative. Additional campaigns involve partnering with U.S. News for a series on race relations in America, rolling out a campaign to hire more than 30,000 disadvantaged people, and a plan to locate some of their newer stores in more ethnically diverse neighborhoods. While the stickers on your latte may have disappeared, Starbucks is increasing their strong stand against racism.

Is “Leaning In? Always the Best Option?

No. Starbucks was able to improve their reputation by leaning in to a controversial campaign, but also by removing the very aspects of the campaign that garnered so much negative publicity. Having a delay in service, expecting a barista to be fully versed on the finer points of a complex topic like race relations, and triggering uncomfortable (or potentially uncomfortable) conversations with customers – these aspects of the campaign disappeared after only a week. The remaining parts of the Race Together Initiative continued while the troublesome portions went away. When your company has clearly done something wrong, leaning in can be disastrous.

The Impact of Digital Media on Crisis Management

Digital media can inflame a public relations crisis, as we have seen with Starbucks’s first phase of the Race Together Initiative. Commenters and customers took to Twitter and Facebook to express their anger over the new campaign, and news of the campaign spread rapidly even among those who did not frequent Starbucks.

But digital media can also be immensely valuable for helping a company recover from a crisis. Starbucks has used their website and social media accounts to inform the public about the other aspects of the Race Together Initiative. Christopher Barger, the director of global social media at General Motors (when they went through their Chapter 11 bankruptcy) said, “You cannot overcommunicate during a crisis. Go on every platform, every possible place that somebody might be listening to you — they’re looking for information. The audience expects you to be there.”

If your company is facing a public relations crisis, it’s important that you be available and accessible on social media, as well as through more conventional channels. An open channel of communication may become a lifeline in helping your company overcome a public relations challenge.

CEO / Co-Founder
Brook Zimmatore is the Co-Founder & CEO at Massive.