I just gathered a group of friends to sign up for a marathon. Thanks Starbucks, for your encouragement to race together!
What? Running and community isn’t their message?
That’s a shame. It would be a more effective campaign than a push for discussions on race relations with customers who only want their nonfat vanilla extra foamy lattes. Seeking to broach a hot topic issue with short-fused, edgy addicts jonesing for their caffeine fix? Unwise.
Starbucks’ new “Race Together” Initiative was announced in a New York Times ad of a giant black page with the words “Shall we overcome” in the middle and “Racetogether” on the bottom right side. My first question: why’s it gotta be black?
Starbucks is a business behemoth. Clearly, it has made savvy moves and cornered the market on coffee by putting a market on every corner. But overtly addressing racial issues? In a coffee shop?
Don’t they already subliminally address it with the macchiato? Foamed milk marked with espresso: sounds pretty racially integrated to me.
CEO Howard Schultz and other senior Starbucks executives engaged 2,000 Starbucks employees in forums tackling the topic. Shultz said the outcome has been, “Emotional, heartbreaking … and in many ways, inspiring.” The company has 135,000 U.S. employees and they met with 2000 of them. About 1.5 percent of the entire Starbucks U.S. workforce found discussions on race emotional. That translates to pushing conversations on millions of customers?
I watched the video of the forums and there were indeed emotional impactful stories that evoked my empathy, compassion and desire to encourage change. However, those stories will not, and cannot, be told over a two-minute encounter while ordering coffee. It is not a feasible conversation, and usually the employee nor the customer wants to engage in it.
As someone who has spent a cumulative 12 years in the customer service industry, I know that most employees want to scan the groceries, take the orders, and move on to the next customer. There is nothing worse than looking up to see an ever-growing, seemingly endless line. The last thing you want is to keep the customer there longer than he needs to be – especially in a potentially charged conversation. The goal is to offer good products, stellar service, and keep that line moving.
As a customer, I have no interest in hot topical discourse with a stranger. “Hi how are you?” “Made it in before the storm, huh?” “Have you tried our new gingerbread, pumpkin, chai with whipped cream yet? ” The conversation should rarely go further than that. Especially with the likely uniformed 18-year-old behind the counter. I’m not dismissing or demeaning Starbucks employees – I was one of them for a spell – which is why I know that many of them are young and uninformed. And that’s okay, because their job is to say, “Have a nice day” and then hand you your cappuccino concoction.
From a customer service perspective, “Race Together” will taint the customer experience with long lines and slower service. From a social movement perspective, it’s ineffective. It does little to erase divisiveness, and in fact, may enhance it.
Race may be the first thing I notice about someone, in the same way that I notice someone is 6’ 5”, or that they have tattoos, or wear glasses. No matter how “enlightened” one is, there is no escaping the initial visual impression. We all make judgments (judgment is not inherently a negative thing) or assessments based on appearance. However, the impression is brief. When exposed to their behavior and character is when I begin to make any real assessment.
Remember the great leader that helped bring about real, tangible change? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
He was wisely implying that race is irrelevant. Starbucks is saying that race is relevant. It is highlighting it. It is shouting it, advocating that we focus on the color of a person’s skin.
A better slogan would be: “Character, Integrity, Respect Together.” Or better yet, stick to the business at hand with, “Enjoy your latte. Have a nice day.”
I’m a Starbucks patron – in fact, I’m drinking a cup right now – and a former employee. While working there, I found it to be a generous and respectable employer. It’s a successful private enterprise that made coffee drinkers of most of the nation. It has had explosive growth, enviable profits and revenue, and continues to expand its brand and partnerships across the world. The company has embarked on many political, social and environmental issues along the way because, as Schultz stated in the National Shareholders Meeting on March 18, 2015, he believes that the role and responsibility of the company goes beyond profits and strives to have a social impact and demonstrate the conscious of their company. I support that view. It’s his company, and he can take it in the direction he sees fit.
But “Race Together” has Starbucks running in the wrong direction, and the movement will be fleeting. There are 135,000 employees, but I doubt even most of the 1.5 percent of the emotional and inspiring ones will raise the race topic with customers. As obedient employees, they will write the words on the cup as instructed and then pass it down the line for the drink to be made. The words on the cup will simply blend into all of the other markings, and the initiative will soon become nothing more than white noise.
I’m sorry, was that racially divisive?
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