Let’s assume for a minute that the folks running Starbucks are real people who are provoked enough by a social issue to use their large stage to talk about it. Can a company ever do so in a way that is considered credible and appropriate by its customers? This is a concern needing resolution by any company that believes its obligation to give back extends beyond shareholders to the world.
Starbucks can be pounced on for some cringe worthy clumsiness in introducing its Race Together campaign, but not for the motive behind it. This is a company with a retail presence in all 50 states of a country that is polarized and stoked about racial bias – people are divided, angry and frightened. In the face of this, Starbucks has offered the exact opposite: The company has presented a united front to promote healing, which is a fearless move considering the blowback it knew it was inviting.
We can be cynical as consumers but we can’t have it both ways. Do we want companies to operate with a greater social conscience or not? To think that this was some smarmily conceived publicity stunt is just absurd (iPad giveaway? Nah, been done. Wait a minute – let’s use Ferguson!) There are far easier ways for Starbucks to get its name in the press than wading into the issue of racism in America.
The company has a track record of some laudable practices in the treatment of its supply chain, its employee culture and in its respect for humans of all kinds. When a shareholder group announced a boycott in protest of the company’s support for Washington State’s gay marriage referendum, CEO Shultz blasted back, “Not every decision is an economic decision. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year…you can sell your shares in Starbucks and buy shares in another company.”
This is the organization people want to get all worked up against? Man, try the decaf. The company’s senior most passion around this seems real and even if it really should do better in improving the percentage of minorities that make up its own executive team, Starbucks deserves credit and support for being willing to take a stand on something beyond new products and pricing.
Will that stand noticeably impact the state of racial equality in the United States? Hardly, but it’s tough to know what will at this point. It’s unfair to lay the accountability on them – they’re a coffee company, not the DOJ, and their legislative authority is limited to what kind of muffins you get to choose from. True, it may only be dialogue that Starbucks is inciting when it’s so clearly the time for action. But saying something is better than saying nothing. Let’s listen now to all of the other companies who have used their position of influence to speak about this urgent issue affecting us all:
A lesson here for other companies is not to use your employee culture as involuntary brand evangelists or apologists. A brand says “you will know us by our intention” and it is up to the culture whether it wants to represent that intention with its own good name, not up to the company to decide for the culture or to assume that it comes with the job description.
The forced involvement of the Starbucks employee culture was equally uncomfortable for customers. Those customers are employees somewhere too and so part of the overall employee culture. They’ll decide to protect or reject a company depending on how they perceive it treats people like them. The company should have relied solely on in-store collateral designed to instigate natural conversation across the counter if both parties are so inclined.
But is the lesson that Starbucks has provided solely a cautionary tale for other companies? We had better hope not because we will be reinforcing the hesitancy of organizational power and wealth to advocate for social change. Maybe most of that advocacy will be patently false and self-serving but if we don’t endorse fumbling first attempts the real ones will never step up. Let’s make these the lessons instead:
1. Be relevant to be valuable.
Old business thinking says that the better your value proposition the more successful you’ll be. In our time of massive customer buying choices and forums for customer–to–customer communication, going to market on value alone risks commoditizing your product. The companies that will be the most successful will provide both value and relevance.
Most companies only choose to be relevant to their customers when they’re trying to sell them something. There’s a lot going on in your customer’s world and that means you’re choosing to be irrelevant to them for most of the time.
2. Drive your business from passion to get to profit.
The companies that become brands conceive of their business in part as a delivery vehicle to build a better world and this gives them a purpose that is credible, consistent and charismatic. If your company’s only passion is to make money the cost of that money will always prove more expensive and difficult than it needs to be. Your customer isn’t infatuated with your revenue concerns.
3. Don’t talk like a company to human beings.
A lot of the negative response to Starbucks comes from the gimmicky aspects of this campaign. To be credible enterprise passion has to be unadulterated – raw and unapologetic, without pulling any punches or putting an obvious marketing or self-serving enterprise spin on it.
If it exists at all most companies take their true human passion and put it through a transmorgifier that sucks it out, flattens the resulting indistinguishable blob into something palatable to every demographic and psychographic profile, bakes it under high commercial pressure until the original soulful intent is completely faded, puts a professional agency glaze on it and then attempts to force feed the result to a skeptical customer culture. Yum.
Ironically this doesn’t make a company’s position safer. It makes it riskier because it isn’t believable. People don’t trust companies; they trust people. If you want your message to be listened to, trusted and shared then you have to talk to those people like they really talk to themselves. This means you have to have enough respect for your customer culture to believe it will find comfort in your authenticity and transparency even if it doesn’t always agree with your point of view.
Whether you agree or disagree with their approach or even their position, it is inarguable that Starbucks is attempting here to bring humanity into its business. If we lose humanity in business, we’re all doomed. If we save it, we will have saved ourselves.