What Went Wrong With the Starbucks #RaceTogether Campaign?

The well-intentioned attempt to become part of the conversation about race backfired when the Starbucks campaign was met with criticism from the media and social media users alike.


Plenty of organizations and companies attempt to start discussions, especially on social media. A well run campaign can engage your customer base, and raise your company’s profile. However, a poorly run campaign can raise the ire of the online mob. Case in point: Starbucks “Race Together” campaign started with the good intentions of starting a discussion about race, but backfired in a major way.

The campaign started last week to encourage customers and employees to discuss race while they waited for their coffee. The idea came out of a town hall style meeting attended by employees and led by President Howard Schultz. Schultz said that the company couldn’t stand silent on the issue of race, according to NPR.

Unfortunately, the campaign was met with derision from reporters and with vitriol from social media users. Since the uproar, Starbucks has removed the race together stickers and messages that were appearing on coffee cups, and released a statement to employees that the campaign as a whole would continue until March 22.

Schultz wrote:

While there has been criticism of the initiative — and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you — let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise. The heart of Race Together has always been about humanity: the promise of the American Dream should be available to every person in this country, not just a select few.  We leaned in because we believed that starting this dialogue is what matters most.

So what went wrong? This kind of social media campaign is easily hijacked by detractors. When the voices of detractors begins to outshine the original intent of the campaign, the brand is suddenly off message, and on the defensive. If organization doesn’t have a plan to counter the negative message, the whole campaign could be lost.

Networked Insights analyst Christina Dorn analyzed the campaign to discover just how negative the response was. Indeed the volume of discussion about Starbucks did increase 266 percent on March 17th. However, one-third of the mentions were categorized as “hate” and 60 percent of responses were negative. Only seven percent of discussion by consumers was positive, according to the data.

On the 18th, conversation increased 408 percent among Networked Insights marketers, compared to trends in previous months. 62 percent of their posts were negative or highly critical of the campaign.

What Starbucks learned is that it’s hard to keep a social campaign on message, especially when dealing with as touchy a subject like race. The overall impression of the campaign was that it was misguided at best, and offensive at worst. When running a social campaign, be prepared for all possible outcomes — both negative and positive.