Analysis

Starbucks 'Race Together' campaign stirs controversy and coffee to court cash

Eliminating racism is a noble cause - but is it one you want to discuss with your barista?

Companies can lose customers with causes that don't fit their brand, marketing experts say

Starbucks employees have been writing #RaceTogether on beverages in an attempt to spark conversations about racial issues with customers. (Nathan Israelson/Instagram)

I found myself in Starbucks today, wishing my barista would try to talk to me about anything other than the new line of pastries.

Race relations? Bring it on. Gun control? Shoot.

If you really want to go all hot button, I'd even talk about Bill C-51. Though discussing manipulative organizations with an outsize control over my life might lead to some uncomfortable territory with a coffee pusher.

Starbucks has taken an online beating since launching its "Race Together" campaign in the U.S. by asking employees to write the slogan on cups while engaging in conversations about race.

But this is Canada, and no one's going to be scrawling "Race Together" on the side of my cup.

Cause marketing gone wild?

Social marketing expert Katherine White says that's probably a good thing.

"It's a seriously weighty issue — and I think one of the things consumers are complaining about is perhaps they don't want to have this conversation before they've had their coffee," says White, who teaches at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz envisions his stores as a 'third place' between home and work in the tradition of European coffee houses. (Robert Sorbo/Reuters)

"One of the issues is, we don't necessarily associate this type of cause with having our coffee, so I think part of the problem is there's a lack of fit with the cause and the organization."

By some accounts, the effort sits at the outer edge of a phenomenon known as "cause marketing."

It began decades ago with companies deciding to "give back" to the community by supporting charitable causes ranging from the March of Dimes to breast cancer research.

In Canada, banks support Olympic athletes, communications companies raise awareness about mental health and oil companies support the arts.

In turn, they link their brands with something positive.

Who profits?

But can you really ever forget that they've also got their hands in your wallet?

"The research on these types of social-responsibility campaigns shows that if it seems like the company is kind of incongruent with the cause they're promoting, or it seems the company has some self-serving motives — consumers will evaluate that negatively," says White.

In Starbucks' defence, CEO Howard Schultz has never hidden his ambition to make his stores a kind of "third place" between work and home, in the tradition of Italian coffeehouses: "a place for conversation and a sense of community," according to the company's website.

But even with the comfy chairs, Starbucks in 2015 is hardly like an 18th-century intellectual salon. Philosophers and writers have given way to laptop hobos.

And back then, the customers inspired the conversation — not the guy struggling to pump out frappuccinos for the drive-thru.

"We're not in Vienna hundreds of years back where we're having these thought-provoking conversations," says University of Saskatchewan business professor Marjorie Delbaere.

"When we're there, is it feeling like it's being forced on us?… If you say 'No, I don't want to have a conversation about race, what does that say about you?'"

Straight coffee, no donations

Therein lies another problem for cause marketing.

What if you just want a cup of coffee, a doughnut or a six-pack and don't want to send a kid to camp or tackle racism?

Dove's Real Beauty campaign has helped the company's sales double. (Dove)

Is it possible to get out of a store these days without feeling like an insensitive cheapskate?

"By saying no to those requests, that's what we're effectively publicly broadcasting," says Delbaere.

"Although all that we're saying is, 'I don't want to give my money to you at this particular time.'"

Other companies have successfully combined sales with a soapbox.

Benetton has attempted to tackle racism and homophobia, and Dove has committed itself to the promotion of so-called "Real Beauty."

And myriad Canadian companies have tried to associate themselves with a hockey-based, feel-good patriotism that — perhaps not coincidentally — usually coincides with the Olympics.

And then there's Lululemon's "Who is John Galt?" tote-bags, in honour of Ayn Rand's ideals in pursuit of self-interest. At least no one can accuse Chip Wilson of hiding his values.

The trick, say the experts, is not coming across as self-righteous or manipulative. Otherwise it's a race to the bottom — as opposed to a race together.

Discuss!

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