JJ Townsend


Tall African Americano, Please

“Tall African Americano, Please”

Beginning this week, Starbucks baristas at 12,000 locations are being encouraged to spark conversations about race with their customers, as part of the company’s “Race Together” campaign, a message to be written on randomly selected cups.

Starbucks has a history of putting their money where their (and your) mouth is. CEO, Howard Schulz, believes corporations have obligations to society beyond what tangibly impacts their bottom lines. With 75 million customers per week, Starbucks can certainly influence public discourse.  in 1988, motivated by an employee dying of AIDS, Howard Schultz persuaded Starbucks' board to extend full health benefits to part-time workers. In 2009, they partnered with Bono's Red campaign to help provide anti-retroviral medication to people in Africa with HIV and AIDS. In 2012, supported same-sex marriage. In 2013, they asked customers to stop bringing guns into Starbucks stores.  This year, they unveiled the College Achievement program that will provide tuition to more than 140,000 full and part-time employees who attend Arizona State University online.  These things are not altruistic; this is business. Values are a big part of of both the balance sheet and the income statements of Starbucks. I believe we're at tipping point where businesses need to step up and take a lead with moral and ethical voices, and call out the things that are harming people and the planet.

Impulse to publicly address race is historic. It’s good to know Starbucks thought Americans were mature enough to talk about race. One of the realities that contributes to race and economic class problems in this country is the level of disconnect and ignorance of the circumstances low-income non-white people face. I do suspect that many of Starbucks’ customers are quick to share their supposed knowledge about, and prescriptions for, solving the issues in places like Ferguson while speaking from a perspective where the closest they ever came to inner city black America was from reruns of HBO’s The Wire.

Since news of the initiative broke, the response among among social media “activists” has almost been nihilistic. The backlash has single handedly managed to unite right wing activists and left wing social justice warriors. They accuse the company of capitalizing on racial tension in America, overreach, and are calling for a more diversified senior management.

I can’t begin to explain the right-wing aversion, but as a flaming liberal, I sadly believe this is the left’s cognitive dissonance moment. Cynicism about #RaceTogether doesn’t make anything better. How can we help companies like Starbucks get better? There’s a difference between holding a company accountable and smacking them accountable. We need folks, particular those of color, to hold power accountable to improve their cultural competencies. Starbucks gave it a try. Now isn’t the time to prematurely strike it down and further sweep the issue under the rug ensuring no other company will dare bring it up for fear of a similar reaction. Cynicism is easy, real solutions are hard.  Here are my 3 unsolicited solutions to the Starbucks campaign:

  1. Should have partnered in a major way with groups who’ve been working on this stuff for years. USA Today partnership is misaligned and seems to be an afterthought.

  2. As a socially conscience company, the point isn’t to exploit racial division to promote the brand, rather leverage the tension to seek shared value for both the company and the cause.

  3. A safer alternative would have been a campaign that mirrors Chipotle’s stories-on-cups campaign. Another link.

  4. The roll-out should have been accompanied by a major corporate  announcement about a new initiative to diversify senior management,

  5. Or maybe they should have had this race discussion last year when Oprah launch her line of Chai Tea.

As a student of public relations who will pursue a career in strategic partnerships and crisis communications soon, I can’t wait to read future case studies about this campaign that will (or should) be studied in business courses and adopted by other companies hoping to make a difference. To sum, "Race Together" was not well executed , and they will pay a price for that, just as they would if they had launched a product that was not well-executed. It's difficult to find a business leaders willing to talk candidly about social and civic issues. Race, especially, is a topic no one wants to touch. It could be that they simply don't know how what change they can effect, or whether their voices would even be welcomed in the first place.


JJ TownsendComment