Lessons from Starbucks and World Change

In the now well-publicized failure of its Race Together campaign, Starbucks has given us a wonderful lesson about understanding your audience. It was, sadly for Starbucks, a cautionary tale of large and embarrassing proportions. In the event that you aren’t aware of this story, I’ll briefly summarize it before getting to what I think is best learned from this story. There are multiple lessons with varying degrees of irony attached, but I’ll mostly be getting at the one we can best use.

The Story Thus Far

On March 17, Starbucks released an informational campaign about race relations called Race Together. The primary focus was centered around the idea that baristas would write the phrase “race together” on each drink cup that was served as a means of spreading awareness. The expected result was that these same baristas would engage their customers in conversations about race relations in the United States. After being flooded with negative reaction, including the VP of Public Relations deleting his own Twitter account due to the overwhelming traffic, Starbucks pulled the plug after just one week.

For many, the idea of being called out by one’s barista as a viable solution for the historically complex problem of race relations is laughably absurd. But let’s not miss the real lesson among the self-evident bad ideas. Starbucks was trying to do something. They found something in our culture that needed to be fixed, and they set out to use their influence to help. For now, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that this was every bit as well-intentioned and passionate as any cause we would get behind. Instead, let’s talk about the poor execution of a bad idea, both of which originated from a good sentiment.

The Key Factor

There is a single idea missing from this whole fiasco, and it would have changed everything: empathy. Nobody at Starbucks (apparently) ever thought about what this would be like for their customer. It’s very important that you understand where your audience is coming from, and it’s something that we spend a lot of time on at Keenly Interactive. For current purposes, let’s do a very quick look at the average customer retrieving a walk-up order at Starbucks. They are very likely in one of three situations:

1. They are meeting someone for a business or personal meeting.

2. They are on their way to something else, and likely in a hurry.

3. They are here alone to work or relax, and this could be their only shot at time to themselves to be productive or restful.

It’s highly unlikely that any of the three people above are primed for a conversation about race relations. Add to that the extremely high likelihood that the person engaging them in this conversation is a complete stranger. The customer may wonder why they were singled out for this conversation. They were all set to do something else when a stranger implied that they were probably racist and wanted to talk about it. They’re not likely to engage in that conversation, or ever come back to this location. And even if this attempt defies the odds and results in a positive, productive conversation, let’s not forget about:

4. All the other people in line.

Everyone back in the line is going to be irritated that everything is moving so slowly, because the person that should be making his or her drink is having a deep conversation on the clock. There is no way that this project does more good than it does harm.

Did Starbucks see an important problem? Sure. Do they want to help? Probably. But there is a problem with their understanding of their customer. They’ve vastly overestimated the relationship, and assumed that people want to hear this kind of thing from Starbucks when picking up their coffee. This is simply not the relationship that people want with Starbucks. Don’t believe me? Twitter will back me up. Even if you do believe me, there are some pretty good tweets in that link, so check them out.

So what do we learn from this? We are all trying to tackle big things, and our work almost always starts with awareness, discussion, and enrolling people in a vision. If we don’t first take the time to understand what life is like for the people that we intend to reach, we are just as likely to steam roll our best chances for interaction with clumsy attempts at conversation. It won’t be as public or hilarious as this example; it will likely just be quiet and passive. But the result will be the same: our passion stays our passion, and the world stays unchanged. When we take the time and effort to learn about our audience, we can be far more effective than we imagine.

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