HOWARD SCHULTZ, the head of Starbucks, thinks the gourmet coffee chain has a responsibility to address America’s vexed race relations. After a series of internal meetings at the company, he decided to launch “Race Together”, a co-venture with USA Today, a newspaper, to “stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America.” “Race is an unorthodox and even uncomfortable topic for an annual meeting,” Mr Schultz conceded at the company’s annual gathering for shareholders on Wednesday. “Where others see costs, risks, excuses and hopelessness, we see and create pathways of opportunity—that is the role and responsibility of a for-profit, public company.”
Though seemingly well-intentioned, the campaign has elicited a backlash. Starbucks baristas, who were invited to write “#Racetogether” on coffee cups, responded with derisive tweets: “Being a barista is hard enough. Having to talk #RaceTogether with a woman in Lululemon pants while pouring pumpkin spice is just cruel.” Corey duBrowa, a senior vice president of global communications at Starbucks, received such a deluge of angry messages that he temporarily deleted his twitter account. Meanwhile, Mr Schultz turned to CNN and other venues to defend his initiative. Though he had fine news to report to shareholders on Wednesday, most of the day’s discussion was devoted to controlling the damage of Race Together. Why did this campaign rub people the wrong way? And what does the incident signal about the ability of corporate brands to present themselves as socially conscious players in the public sphere?