Starbucks’ #RaceTogether: Coffee Tries to Meet Conversation

The coffee chain tried to serve its lattes and macchiatos with a side of conversation. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Like Starbucks’ menu, talk isn’t cheap.

The coffee chain got more customers and commentators talking about its #RaceTogether campaign than actual race relations in America. Its revenue didn’t feel the burn, but its reputation was temporarily singed thanks to criticism and social media backlash.

The campaign started with open forums in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York and Chicago that encouraged more than 2,000 employees to discuss their experiences and perspectives on race relations. Then baristas voluntarily wrote “#RaceTogether” on customers’ cups as a way of inviting them to discuss the same topic.

The customer outreach part of the program ended on March 22, less than a week after its March 17 kickoff, after negative backlash on social media became so heavy that Vice President of Communications Corey DuBrowa suspended his Twitter account.

“I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” DuBrowa wrote in a post for Medium. “I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.”

As much as Starbucks’ discussion delivery system was criticized, some diversity leaders applaud the effort. Risha Grant, president of diversity and inclusion-based public relations firm Risha Grant LLC and founder of DiversityConnex.com, said that although engaging customers in a conversation about something as multifaceted as race while they rush to get their morning coffee is a stretch without the right training or public buy-in, she admired Starbucks’ onus.

“Corporations should be a part of the conversation,” she said. “Some people you’ll never change, but some people really do want to talk about it. I think corporations would be a great place to start it.”

But one of the keys to successfully introducing the conversation is making sure it doesn’t cool off like a forgotten venti dark roast.

“There’s a lot of talk about we have to have this conversation, and then we move on,” said Michael Fosberg, president of Incognito Inc., a theater company that facilitates conversations on diversity. “Kim Kardashian pops her head up or we get distracted by something else.”

One of the ways to make sure that over-caffeinated attention spans don’t derail diversity conversations is to do more than talk. Not only does that show how an organization is committed to diversity, but it also does more to improve diversity in the workplace and positively impacts the communities where a corporation has a presence. Increased job training, hiring and promoting of diversities benefits both local economies and organizations’ bottom line.

Grant said Starbucks has a track record of promoting diversity through its own hiring practices. At its March shareholders meeting, the company announced it will push to hire what CEO Howard Schultz called “disenfranchised and disconnected youth” — minorities who are out of school and unemployed.

Although action can seem louder than words, facilitating the conversation isn’t the equivalent of taking the easy way out.

“The conversation on race is a bigger than possible thing,” Fosberg said. “It’s not something we don’t need to have, but I think part of the problem is we have so many different ways to talk about it and come at it with so many different experiences. No matter how someone approaches it, there will be controversy. Some will not approve, some will approve.”

But just as there’s no one way to order a coffee, there’s no single way to have a conversation about race relations. Grant helps companies act on and publicize their diversity goals. Fosberg performs a one-man play to spark social change.

“We just keep going down the same path if we’re not provoking some meaningful change,” he said. “We all have a responsibility for that."