Racial relations have been one of the most polarizing issues in American history. This has especially been true in the past year following events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. Many believe that the nation is more racially divided now than anytime in the last 20 years. As a rule businesses try to stay away from such polarizing issues aware of the backlash that a stand can cause.
Starbucks has always been an exception believing that taking stands are what its consumers expect of the company. This week Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz placed his company into the racial debate with the “Race Together” campaign. The initiative encourages Starbucks’ 12,000 baristas to engage customers in discussions about race in America and cups are emblazoned with “Race Together”.
It should be noted that this is not the first time that Schultz and Starbucks have engaged in social and political debate. In fact he has been unafraid to confront shareholders who opposes his views. He is expected to address the issue on Wednesday.
The backlash from consumers against “Race Together” has been immense. Social media is afire with comments from angry customers who say the last thing they want to do when going to Starbucks for coffee or other drinks is be lectured by baristas about racial issues. Many consumers consider this to be over the top and offensive. The reaction has been so intense that one Starbucks executive deleted his Twitter account complaining against the comments he was receiving. In addition to the consumer anger, the company is facing ridicule from talk radio and late night comedians.
Yet in many ways this is a brilliant public relations and branding move by Schultz. Consumers expect brands to tell a story and share their values. We see this all the time. Marketing is based upon this. We watch television news that is slanted toward our political views. Several years ago, Chick-fil-A made news when its CEO came out against same-sex marriage legislation. It created a media firestorm but also led to even greater consumer loyalty from its customers.
Schultz and Starbucks are doing the same. Consumers gravitate towards companies that they believe share their values. Yes Starbucks will garner criticism and be laughed at, yet it is reinforcing its brand identity. It is telling its story to consumers. Schultz needs to explain this Wednesday. His consumers who are loyal to Starbucks and its values will be with him. Indeed all of his moves on social and political issues have reinforced that brand identity. Starbucks is following the new branding strategy of telling its story through its values.