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Brown: Why Starbuck's "Race Together" campaign failed

BY MARCUS VINCENT BROWN | MARCH 25, 2015 5:00 AM

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We have grown accustomed to faceless corporate conglomerates that supply our basic needs in exchange for vast amounts of our money. Sometimes it works when businesses try to inject some sense of pathos into this transactional relationship. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Given the impact and audience base large corporations wield, it would seem natural to use it for good causes. However, the determining factor in trying to positively influence a customer audience is not the message but rather the context in which the message is delivered. When the context doesn’t fit, we grow suspicious of these businesses, which usually leave something to be desired in the trust department from the start.

Starbucks recently learned this lesson the hard way. Sunday marked the end of a Starbucks campaign in which baristas wrote the phrase “Race Together” on the drinks they served. The message was a part of a “diversity and racial inequality campaign” the chain plans on continuing despite the backlashed garnered from this particular component of the campaign. I would talk more on the meaning of the phrase if it weren’t so vague. I will say that being vague is a good idea if you want to encapsulate the entirety of racial inequality for mass consumption. You can only fit so much on a cup, even if it is a Venti.

Complaints about the written message varied, but by and large the issue was not the message but rather the manner in which it was expressed. The recent prevalence of public racial discrimination made Starbucks’ campaign appear as a gimmick and not a genuine attempt at bridging racial divides. While the message being delivered was well-intentioned, the vessel chosen for it gave grounds for skepticism and distrust.

Even more of an issue than the ill-timed launch of the campaign is the very notion of Starbucks trying to associate itself with a public crusade against racial discrimination. Starbucks certainly has the means and opportunity to captain this conversation but not the pre-established reputation for doing so. Caramel frappuccinos and coffeehouse acoustic do not evoke thoughts on centuries of institutional racism and systematic oppression for me. Furthermore, Starbucks isn’t necessarily the place I want to ponder such issues when presumably I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Starbucks’ effort. I think it was a noble idea, and I applaud its willingness to try to tackle such an issue. At the same time, I have never once thought “What is Starbucks going to do about this?” when watching videos of unarmed black man being killed by police or frat boys chanting racial slurs.

I understand that Starbucks sells coffee, and I don’t expect much else from it for that very reason. There is a lot that a company such as Starbucks could do to address the very real problem of race relations in this country. I’m not banking on Starbucks saving the world, but it is more than welcome to take a crack at it. That said, scribbling on my cup with a Sharpie is not exactly my preferred method of fighting for social change.

There is a time and place for corporations to try to tackle significant social issues, but it has to be done in a way that is tactful and congruent to the magnitude of the issue addressed. In times of nationwide adversity it is perfectly acceptable for corporations to humanize themselves and remind the general public that there are people behind the brand.

However, there is a thin line between the aforementioned behavior and opportunism. When that line is crossed or, perceived to be crossed, it not only belittles the message being spread but also the entity spreading the message. I hope Starbucks does not let this specific incident dissuade it from earnestly trying to positively impact the harsh realities of this country. While the “Race Together” message placement may have been a bust, I would still give the attempt an A for effort.


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