In what some ad executives are describing as the biggest marketing mistake since the Coca-Cola Company launched its “New Coke” rebranding effort in 1985, Starbucks first launched then ditched its effort to “spark a national conversation about race” with people looking to start their day with morning coffee – not weighty questions about the state of race relations in America today.
The campaign involved Starbuck “baristas” writing “Race Together” on customers’ cups with the hope of inspiring conversations about a complex subject with customers eager to get on with their day – and the consumer reaction bears this out.
The campaign put Starbuck’s employees in the difficult position of talking about race with customers leaving many associates to disobey executive guidance out of anxiety, a lack of interest or both.
It also slowed down service leading to longer lines, stressed out customers and an exodus to competitors like Dunkin Donuts for the morning caffeine fix.
The official reaction was no different. Weekend talking heads, print media pundits and cable news shows talked about the campaign derisively based not on its’ subject but on the business sense of making such a move.
It didn’t take Starbucks management long to learn the folly of their race conversation effort considering the fact that they called off the “Race Together” campaign with none of the fanfare that marked its’ launch just one week ago.
Some have criticized the campaign as “opportunistic and inappropriate” considering it was launched in the aftermath of high profile police killings of blacks in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island New York,
On Sunday, Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz said of the campaign that “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”.
Schultz’s lofty desire to call out racism, confront the touchy subject head on and place the issue on the front burner of political debate is hampered by this ironic fact.
There are no Starbuck stores in Ferguson, Missouri (where Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting) or Selma, Alabama where protesters began their march in 1965 to the state capitol in Montgomery – an event that galvanized the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s.