After taking on issues like gay rights, gun control, aid to military veterans and political gridlock, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently announced on March 16 his plan for the company to take on a new challenge: spurring a conversation about racism.
Starbucks hit headlines when news got out that Schultz requested for baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups before handing them to customers. In a video shared with employees last week, Schultz encouraged them to “try to engage in a discussion that we have problems in this country in regards to race.”
In a March 22 letter to his employees, however, Schultz ended the cup-writing phase of the campaign but assured his supporters that it “was always just the catalyst for a much broader and longer term conversation” about racial inequality and diversity.
Despite a mixed response to Race Together, including some harsh criticism from social media users, Schultz continues to stress the importance of discussing race issues as a means to make society better. He anticipated skeptics at the onset of the initiative. Many criticized it as opportunistic and inappropriate while others questioned if it were even possible for Starbucks baristas to engage in constructive conversations about the issue while busily serving coffee.
Could it be successful?
Starbucks stock hit a 52-week high of $99.20 this week after announcing a two-for-one common stock split plan. Under the plan, shareholders will receive one additional share for each common share they own. News got out quickly, especially given the amount of free press the company was receiving after the announcement of its Race Together plan. With this in mind, it can be argued that the Race Together initiative has not particularly hurt the company so far. The media pummeling, however, needs to be taken into account when analyzing the initial success of this initiative. Common criticism describes the campaign as a good idea that has been poorly executed.
Monique Nelson, chair and CEO of UniWorld Group, a 47-year-old multicultural marketing and adverstising firm, said that Starbucks created a great opportunity for an authentic and organic campaign but for it “to just put an edict out: ‘Have a conversation about race’ is not a good format in terms of execution.” According to Nelson, Race Together could have potentially pushed away workers and customers.
Nelson’s opinions mimic those of Jennifer Epps-Addison, executive director of nonprofit labor rights organization Wisconsin Jobs Now. Epps-Addison expressed to the International Businness Times her opinion that Starbucks should have an independent agency to do focus groups with workers from various geographical areas, like suburbs and urban areas, that have diverse groups of consumers. In this way, the company can better spur conversation with a better understanding of its consumers and a more organized approach.
Nevertheless, Starbucks is continuing to move its Race Together campaign on to other phases. What was once a small Seattle chain of coffee stores is now the world’s biggest coffee chain under Schultz, a champion of social issues “to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”
March 27, 2015.