Assignment - Select a failed social media campaign. Discuss why you believe this campaign failed. How did the company or person try to repair its image after the campaign? How would you have approached this campaign differently?
Starbucks, the ubiquitous Seattle-based coffee company, is seen as a leader on many progressive issues, and does a great deal to earn the loyalty of its 277,000 worldwide employees, or “partners” as they are known. From offering full health care benefits to part-time employees to being recognized as a LBGT-friendly large employer, Starbucks prides itself as being a progressive and inclusive company.
My wife works at the Starbucks Support Center, which would be known as a corporate headquarters if it were any other company. Equality and social responsibility are very important at Starbucks, and it has paid off in many ways. For example, Starbucks was recently named the fifth-most admired employer in the world; it has achieved 100 percent gender pay equity in the US; and its stock has done well over the years (though not lately).
As a progressive and forward-thinking company, Starbucks has engaged in many social media campaigns. Some have been hugely successful (people can’t wait for the holiday cups to come out). Others have hugely backfired.
Former CEO Howard Schultz and Starbucks have not shied away from controversial issues. In many ways leaning into social issues facing our country has made Starbucks the successful company it is today. People like being associated with the brand because they agree with the company’s values and culture. One example of social activism that Starbucks and Schultz took on is the “#racetogether” campaign that Schultz spearheaded in 2015.
Schultz decided early in 2015 that his company should do something to try to bring people together. Funny that we thought people were irreconcilably divided back in 2015. Little did we know what was to come. But that’s a blog post for another day. Anyway, Schultz had an idea and ran it by his executives. He proposed that Starbucks baristas write “#racetogether” on customers’ cups. This simple gesture would be accompanied by a media campaign in which Starbucks would work to engage the public by starting a discussion on the racial tensions in America.
According to an in-depth analysis of the campaign by Fast Company magazine, Schultz wanted to do something and had this idea, but he nor anyone on his team really examined how it would look for a white male billionaire to attempt to lead a discussion on racial issues. Nor was any market research done on the idea. It was hastily rolled out and quickly exploded into a controversial, poorly thought out, foolish idea. Those were some of the more kind words used to describe the initiative, which included a memo instructing baristas to ““engage [customers] in conversation,” and offered three bullet points for possible sentiments to convey, including, “Our company feels responsible to do our part as the country faces ongoing racial tension.”
Social media predictably (for everyone but Schultz) exploded. People of all races almost universally panned the idea, saying that they were definitely not interested in talking about racial issues with their local barista. The fact that Starbucks lacks diversity at the executive level and is led by a white man was immediately brought up. Who was Schultz to tell others to engage on social issues? Why was the company even bringing up social issues at all?
In just a week, Starbucks ended its initiative of baristas writing “#racetogether” on cups. But the company did not admit defeat. Instead they doubled down, admitting an error in the execution of this particular initiative but committing to be a leader on corporate diversity. For example, Starbucks has expanded into economically diverse neighborhoods and has committed to hire 10,000 “opportunity youth,” specifically from areas that tend to be economically depressed. And while Schultz himself admitted that the “#racetogether” initiative was not successful, he also prided himself on the fact that his company at least starting a conversation about racial issues instead of ignoring them.
Personally, I never would have had the interest nor the desire to try to address racial issues as a corporate leader. I don't agree with Schultz that corporations should be involved in social issues of the day. There are other ways to stand for something besides trying to force people into a conversation or engagement they do not want to have. That is egotism, not leadership. In my opinion, corporations should operate ethically and legally but should leave the activism to others. That is not to say that their employees should not be allowed to engage in social issues or that the corporation should not weigh in on issues of the day. But I think any such actions should be done with great care and consideration. Corporations should be as neutral as possible, leaving the politics and activism to others.
While the #racetogether initiative was clearly a failure, with 62 percent of social media posts related to the campaign classified as negative, according to an analysis by AdWeek, it did raise Starbucks’ profile and got people talking about social issues. Everyone “came together” to bash Starbucks and Schultz’s egotistical approach to discussing racial issues, but the conversation was happening, which was the company’s goal all along. So in a way the initiative had its intended effect.
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