Starbucks Race Together and the Starting Line

I was lucky enough to see Howard Schultz talk about Starbucks’ Race Together initiative at a small gathering not too long ago. While I was already a supporter of the company’s brave foray into the issue of race, I became an even bigger fan after witnessing Mr. Schultz’s passion and personal commitment to a cause he clearly views as important, and genuinely holds close to his heart.

While I laud the effort, I also think it is important to point out that there has been a problem with the execution and the manner it was launched into the mainstream. Execution always matters, but in an effort of this magnitude, sensitivity and complexity, it will be the difference between success and failure. For one thing, it is absolutely imperative that this effort not come across as a glib and disingenuous marketing campaign. Nor can it afford to be ‘perceived’ as an altruistic effort designed to generate sales and foot traffic for Starbucks. I know it is not, but I may be the in the minority.

For starters, there are very few companies and brands in the world that could even attempt to raise an issue so loaded and so sensitive, leave alone try to convince the world that it is coming from a selfless place. The Starbucks brand has built a strong reputation for authenticity both with the respect with which they treat their partners (employees) and the amazing benefits they offer. They also have a history of actively supporting the communities they do businesses in. They were one of the early companies to join RED to help fight AIDS. During the recent recession they partnered with Opportunity Finance Network to help put people back to work. Diversity and inclusion have always been more than a motto and mere words on a vision statement to this company. Recently, they launched a major initiative to help US veterans. They sponsored a star-studded concert this past Veterans Day, and Howard Schultz has even co-authored a book “For Love of Country” that shines a light on these brave men and women by sharing their personal stories. Starbucks has also pledged to hire at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018. This is a company whose social outreach has always gone above and beyond writing cheques. They have never been afraid of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty on issues they believe are important to society.

However, unlike all their past efforts, there is one stark and crucial difference that they need to recognise with Race Together before they can create a blueprint for how to execute it. Free undergraduate college degrees (recently announced for all employees), helping fight AIDS, supporting Veterans and every other social initiative Starbucks has undertaken are very easy for people to get behind in ways that instantly make them feel warm and fuzzy, be it through personally getting involved or by simply buying a cup of coffee. Race Together is different.

The topic of race pushes people well outside their comfort zone. There is no warm and fuzzy here – only guilt, grimace, shame, embarrassment and gross discomfort. Whether you have witnessed a racist act and did nothing to stop it, or have been humiliated because of the colour of your skin and felt like you did something wrong – most everyone has had a personal experience with race. Yet, this is not a subject that families discuss at the dinner table or even with close friends. It is something we bear witness to and experience, most often in silence.

For this reason, I am confident that none of the traditional tactics will work here. In fact, the message will fail to resonate as long as it is delivered in a top-down manner. What I mean is that USA Today inserts make this feel like a marketing campaign. Writing it on cups (while well intentioned) made it feel forced and gimmicky. You cannot force people to talk about sexual abuse publicly; and most people feel the same way about racism. One final point on this; I believe that as long as Mr. Schultz and/or his board and senior executives are seen to be the public “voices” and faces of this campaign, they will struggle to lend it the authenticity it requires. I have no doubt that Mr. Schultz is genuine about his desire to start this conversation and for all the right reasons, but he is still a wealthy and successful white man and this fact matters in this conversation (even though it should not).

My suggestion to Mr. Schultz is to turn his current executional strategy on its head – stop trying to deliver it top-down. By this I mean think about Race Together less like every other traditional corporate PR and communications effort, and imagine it like needing to build a grassroots movement – one that can only be built bottom-up.

For me the video Mr. Schultz showed us of an impromptu town hall meeting (he held at Starbucks headquarters last December) did more to provoke thought and evoke a sentiment about this topic than anything else Starbucks has done thus far. And it was not Starbucks’ voice that caused this emotional stirring, but the voices of the everyday people sharing their very personal stories.

By sharing starkly different experiences about simple, mundane, everyday acts that most of us go through without batting an eyelid – it brought to life very vividly the different Americas we still live in today and experience differently based purely on our skin colour.

Hearing a black mother say that one of her greatest daily fears is making sure her child does not wear brightly coloured clothes to school has a power that no advertising or PR agency can ever deliver in a campaign. It is raw. It is authentic. It is where Mr. Schultz should begin building his brave and much needed conversation about race in America, all while ensuring that Starbucks Corporation and his voice are always in the background, creating the safe zones, providing the platforms and championing everyday voices until one-day they light the spark that will get everyone speaking out, across America.