Starbucks’ #RaceTogether Campaign and the Shift toward Pro-Social Brands

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If you’ve been to a Starbucks in the past week, you may have seen something other than your name written on the side of your coffee. The company recently launched a new campaign encouraging baristas to write “#RaceTogether” on coffee cups in order to engage customers in discussions about race relations.

While the sentiment behind this initiative may be good, the public response was not. As it turns out, standing at the register with a line of caffeine-deprived customers waiting behind you, anxious to get their coffee and be on their way, may not be the best time or place to start a conversation about such an important issue. And that’s putting aside the question of whether all Starbucks’ employees were given the appropriate training to initiate these conversations.

Not surprisingly, earlier this week, Starbucks announced in a memo to employees that it would be dropping this aspect of the campaign.

And yet, with all the attention focused on the above issue, most aren’t aware that this was just one element of Starbucks’ overall Race Together initiative, which stemmed from a company forum in December where employees were encouraged to discuss their thoughts on racial tensions amid the recent issues in Ferguson, Mo., New York and other parts of the country. A number of activities are planned for the coming months, including open forums and special sections in USA Today. The company also has made a commitment to hire 10,000 disadvantaged youth over the next three years and open new stores in communities with large minority populations.

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Perhaps if all of this had been communicated better, the in-store element wouldn’t have been such a fail. On the other hand, was it a fail? We can all agree that it wasn’t well-executed, overshadowing the clearly better thought out elements of the campaign. But, the company’s stock did hit a 52-week high, and the publicity (although negative) has opened the door for deeper conversations to take place elsewhere.

Regardless of whether it was a failure or a success, the #RaceTogether controversy certainly opened the door to another conversation: how more and more companies are taking a stand on social issues as part of their corporate responsibility efforts. Some have predicted that 2015 will be “the year of the pro-social brand” (also referred to as “corporate social advocacy”), saying:

Pro-social brands are the next step for companies looking to morally engage with consumers…Unlike the ‘sustainable brand’ that says ‘buy our product because we’re making it less harmfully than others,’ the pro-social brand says ‘join us in making a better society.’ The pro-social brand doesn’t say: ‘Look what we’ve done. Now buy our stuff.’ Instead it says: ‘We’re willing to take a stand. Stand with us.’”

Research by the Global Strategy Group shows that 56 percent of Americans think it is appropriate for companies to stand up for what they believe politically, regardless of whether or not it is controversial.

Undeniably, there are many pros and cons to a company taking a stand on a controversial issue. Starting with the cons, many people feel that corporations don’t have any business getting involved in social or political issues – especially if they aren’t practicing what they preach. And of course, the company risks alienating the portion of their customer base that may not agree with the side they’re taking.

Target Marriage Equality
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On the more positive side, research shows that taking a stand on a social issue can enhance brand loyalty. According to a Forbes study, when corporate stances are consistent with an individual’s own beliefs, those in the 18-25 and 26-35 age groups are most likely (8.1 percent and 21.1 percent, respectively) to demonstrate an increased intention to purchase from that company.

Another study done by Pinpoint Market Research showed that most twenty-somethings surveyed (79 percent) choose or boycott companies based on the brand’s allegiance to social issues, and 88 percent want to see brands effecting real change in the community.

The list of companies jumping on the pro-social train continues to grow. From Coke’s controversial “America is Beautiful” Super Bowl commercial to the long list of organizations that have come out in support of marriage equality, it’s clear that this new trend in corporate responsibility has only just begun gaining steam.

What do you think – should companies take a stand on social issues as part of their corporate responsibility?


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