Last week, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced the beginning of his company’s #RaceTogether campaign — described as “a year-long effort designed to stimulate conversation, compassion and positive action regarding race in America.”
If you haven’t heard by now, that opening salvo involved Starbucks baristas writing #RaceTogether on cups of coffee served to customers as a means to provoke a dialogue about race with that customer.
What could possibly go wrong?
Immediately the public mocked Schultz and questioned the motivations of the effort. What exactly was he hoping to accomplish by having a part-time employee — with maybe some college education — engage in a conversation about one of the most minefield-laden, hot-button topics in the nation?
Starbucks has since rolled back that initial part of the effort, announcing over the weekend that phase has been “completed” and was only meant to serve as catalyst for a broader and longer-term effort for a “conversation” about race. But what if the intentions weren’t as honorable as Schultz has made them out to be in his media appearances and public letters?
Starbucks has a demographic problem and it’s very much similar to what you hear when people discuss the long-term prospects of the Republican Party.
According to a survey conducted by Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania marketing group Civic Science, 78 percent of Starbucks coffee drinkers are white. That is a shrinking demographic in the United States. Projections suggest whites will be a minority by the year 2050.
It seems entirely plausible that Schultz and his shareholders recognize this and in a cynical attempt to broaden the appeal of Starbucks’ product, as a company they’re going to dabble in the realm of weighty social issues. Consider this: at the company’s shareholders meeting, where the #RaceTogether effort rolled out formally, elements from the movie “Selma,” co-produced by Oprah Winfrey were featured, including the Academy Award-winning song “Glory.”
But roughly 160 miles north of Mobile in the real Selma, Ala., there are no Starbucks to be found. The closest Starbucks is 41 miles away from the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, off Interstate 65 in Prattville.
Why is that? Why would a company with an alleged focus on race relations not have a franchise in a community of 20,000 people, but with 80 percent of its population African-American?
Perhaps it’s too small a market for Starbucks?
Conversely in Cullman, Ala., a city slightly smaller than Selma with 15,000 people, there is a Starbucks. Oh yeah, Cullman is also 93.4 percent white.
No one would fault Starbucks for opting for a city like Cullman over Selma, given the economic data. Both Cullman and Selma have household median incomes far below the national average, but Cullman has a distinct advantage over Selma at $29,000 annually versus $21,000 for Selma.
Starbucks, however, made it go beyond the economics by trying to brand itself as an institution we can look to for answers on race while also getting a latte. The problem is they don’t put their money where their mouth is.
It’s not to say a Starbucks franchise would cure the woes of the economically beleaguered city, but even if it were a loss it would make the campaign seem more honorable than being just a shameless ploy to expand their customer base with a Twitter “hashtag” marketing slogan. In a lot of metropolitan areas around the country, there is a Starbucks Coffee franchise on every other block. Mobile has a whopping 10 franchises.
Why wouldn’t Starbucks, a $73-billion company, put down stakes in an economically disadvantaged place like Selma? Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Belk and Taco Bell are among the national chains that have done so.
At worst, you’d have one busy day a year when leaders of today’s so-called Civil Rights movement and aspiring liberal presidential candidates seeking a photo op arrive to commemorate the anniversary “Bloody Sunday.”
Or at best, a Starbucks would be investing in a community with some upside. Selma could get some help from the proposed extension of Interstate 85 from Montgomery to the Mississippi-Alabama state line. For now, it’s a little off the beaten path, but that could change over the next couple of decades.
This was probably one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time — to use the reach of the business through its franchises to promote race relations and if you win over some new customers because of it, even better. But like any sort of “hashtag” campaign, it’s nothing but a symbolic gesture. “Hey look, we’re proactive on race. We’re even actually writing the hashtag on our coffee cups!”
Just like first lady Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls campaign, her way of calling on Muslim extremist group Boko Haram to release nearly 300 girls abducted from their boarding school in Nigeria, this comes off as nothing more than a feel-good gesture.
The difference is Mrs. Obama doesn’t seem to have a financial interest in her campaign.
The message to Starbucks is if you’re going to take this self-righteous approach on racial inequalities in America and use your likely underqualified baristas to play messenger, do better than implementing these symbolic gestures to start a discussion. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.