Starbucks® – Remaking More Than A Drink

I was teaching my Integrated Marketing Communications Execution Class at North Park University in Chicago and I asked my students to come up with an ad campaign to help Starbucks® through its recent crisis. These students had some great ideas, yet many of them were hesitant to address the issue of discrimination head on. This is not to say they didn’t use words like discrimination, diversity and bias, but their messages were inclusive of all people and not specific to the people who were offended.

Why is that? Why were they hesitant to say “we messed up with Black people” versus “we don’t tolerate discrimination,” “we value diversity” or “we need to address unconscious bias?” I would like to know what your thoughts are on this, but I think its rooted in difficulty in having that real conversation about race. It’s difficult enough to say discrimination, diversity and bias, as each of these words means something different to many different people at different times:

  • Discrimination means, “I’m being treated unfairly based on a specific quality or characteristic” to the person being discriminated against. It may mean, “you are calling me a racist” to the person who committed the act. Or it may mean, “you are using the race card to gain an advantage” to others. Many times, the word itself doesn’t lead to a conversation, but, instead, creates a me versus them attitude.
  • Diversity means, to many people, that “organizations have different minds, genders, ethnicities etc. as part of their teams AND these organizations include those people in decision making”. To some, diversity means quotas, mandates and unqualified people getting jobs based on their diversity. This word can also create an atmosphere of division.
  • Bias means, “you are making decisions and assumptions based on a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair by the person experiencing that bias”. For the person accused of bias, some feel attacked and judged unfairly. Again, this word can create a them versus us scenario.

If these words potentially set the stage for an adversarial relationship, I contend speaking more directly about race is even more volatile. I asked some of my students why hadn’t they said discrimination against Blacks or bias against Blacks. Some of their responses were:

  • The more you talk about it the bigger you make the problem.
  • People other than Blacks are offended by the specific act in question as well, so shouldn’t we talk to them all?
  • The issue of discrimination is broader than one group and this is an opportunity to address it on a broader scale.
  • When you talk Black and White it is polarizing.

I will not address all of the above specifically, but the idea that when someone offends another person and then issues a general apology, that apology doesn’t say, “I’m sorry” to the victim.  And when that person speaks directly to the victim, they must also consider the entire landscape. In the case of Starbucks®, they need to address the two men specifically, the African American community specifically, the overall community of people who are offended and then greater society, in that order. They must be specific to the what and the who.

Now, to be fair to my students, an apology doesn’t have to be done via an ad campaign. In fact, an ad campaign may be limiting and may not be the right vehicle to address the specific issue.  In Starbucks’® case, they are utilizing many public relation tactics to address their issues. My overall point is Starbucks® offended two African Americans and, in turn, many in the African American community.  And while I think Starbucks® has taken some great steps in addressing this crisis, Starbucks® must resist the urge to brew a generic message – they must intentionally craft an apology as specific and individualized as their baristas craft a cup of java for its patrons.  

Just Something to Ponder.


Reginald Ponder
Marketing Executive
The Kaleidoscope Group
p: 773.972.4474