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Coffee, Served with Cream, Sugar and Conversations on Race

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We talk a lot about being inclusive of those in your workplace—it’s the best way to increase productivity and create a strong culture. But, inclusivity extends beyond your workforce to your customers, or your market. Starbucks’ controversial new campaign drives this point home.

Last month, Starbucks announced its new “Race Together” campaign. In essence, baristas write the phrase “Race Together” on customer orders with the goal that baristas and customers will engage in conversation about race relations.

In the Associated Press article “Starbucks CEO defends ‘Race Together’ after backlash,” Candice Choi discusses what other tactics are included in the campaign. “Starbucks also plans to start publishing ‘conversation guides’ on the topic,” which might encourage customers to have these discussions amongst themselves. Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO, noted that baristas and customers don’t have to participate in the campaign—it’s only encouraged or suggested that they do.

The campaign seems to have two camps: those who support it and find it to be a good idea, and those who think, at best, it doesn’t make sense and, at worst, it’s insensitive.

As noted in the article, some people think it is “opportunistic and inappropriate for a coffee chain to insert itself into such an important issue.”

Starbucks isn’t the only organization to create campaigns for a particular cause or an important issue facing society. Whether or not the board behind the brand truly believes in the cause they’re supporting, their support for a cause gives them more visibility to customers.

Whether it makes sense or not is another question. Choi points out that Dove has had great success with the “Real Beauty” campaign, which celebrates the beauty of all women of every race, size and level of beauty.

What makes the Dove campaign different than Starbucks’, though, is that beauty is associated with Dove products, products that promote beauty and health. Laura Ries, a branding consultant, says “’There’s nothing wrong with talking about race relations… but is it something people naturally associate with Starbucks? It’s not.’”

In other words, many people are experiencing confusion and doubt over this campaign because of the lack of connection between our country’s race relations and Starbucks lattes. Time will tell how Starbucks handles the situation and what impact, if any, the controversy will have on its brand. 

Companies that choose to support social issues must take into consideration how a particular cause relates to their company, their employees, and their markets. Companies must also be cognizant of the real potential to—however unintended—offend, exclude or exhibit bias toward them.

Unconscious bias, even if it’s well-intended, can have real bottom line impacts. Alienating customers can hurt your bottom line.  

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