Starbucks Ends Race Together on Cups, But Diversity Campaign Continues


A week ago today, Starbucks announced “Race Together” with full-page ads and stories in the New York Times and USA Today Sunday newspapers as a platform to spark a conversation in its US stores about race relations.

Today, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced its baristas will stop writing the phrase (or placing the campaign’s stickers) on cups.

Instead, the world’s biggest coffee chain will continue the conversation on its microsite with USA Today and its diversity program, including local outreach and recruitment efforts.[more]

The #RaceTogether campaign was quickly dismissed as a PR flop and roundly criticized on social media, by comedians and by the press, with some feeling that the company was overstepping what it might reasonably expect of employees and customers alike.

Schultz was compelled to defend the effort on CNBC against critics who dismissed it as moralistic finger-wagging or self-serving do-goodery. Still others felt that it was a purpose-driven move that, while pushing buttons and comfort zones, was in line with its strategy to be a world-changing brand.

PBS News anchor Gwen Ifill followed up on her “not before I’ve had my morning coffee” tweet with a column in which she elaborated, “Yes, let me get my latte first. But let’s not end it there.” 

NBA champ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called it “flawed” but praiseworthy in a column for TIME, commenting that “Even though Howard Schultz’s idea may be flawed, he’s acting out of the desire to help realize the vision of America—to save it from its own worst impulses.”

“Race Together” was also Topic A at its celeb-studded annual meeting this week, where the musician Common, Starbucks’ sole female African American board member Mellody Hobson, journalist Meredith Viera, entertainer Julianne Hough and others defended the effort to shareholders.

“I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you—let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” Schultz wrote in an all-employee letter (read it below) that the company released today. “We leaned in because we believed that starting this dialogue is what matters most.”

While polarizing, the campaign followed on Schultz’s “open letter” on racial tensions and townhall late last year, and succeeded in sparking a dialogue and debate about how companies approach and discuss social issues such as race, and what role corporate citizenship efforts can and should play in a brand’s communications and messaging.

The company, Schultz added, remains committed to expanding urban US neighborhoods, plans to hire 10,000 “opportunity youth” over the next three years, and continue the native advertising/branded content partnership with USA Today, with the Race Together print newspaper insert now available in its stores.

Schultz’s letter to Starbucks employees (“partners” in company parlance):

Dear partners,

I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to every one of you for your fearless and energetic support of the Race Together initiative.  Our objective from the very start of this effort — dating back to our first open forum in Seattle last December — was to stimulate conversation, empathy and compassion toward one another, and then to broaden that dialogue beyond just our Starbucks family to the greater American public by using our scale for good.  

After a historic Annual Shareholders Meeting that focused on diversity and inequality, and an initial push for much-needed national discussion around these difficult topics, it is time for us to take stock of where we are, what we have learned from our efforts so far, and what is next.  

This phase of the effort — writing “Race Together” (or placing stickers) on cups, which was always just the catalyst for a much broader and longer term conversation — will be completed as originally planned today, March 22. 

But this initiative is far from over. We have a number of planned Race Together activities in the weeks and months to come: more partner open forums, three more special sections co-produced with USA TODAY over the course of the next year, more open dialogue with police and community leaders in cities across our country, a continued focus on jobs and education for our nation’s young people plus our commitment to hire 10,000 opportunity youth over the next three years, expanding our store footprint in urban communities across the country, and new partnerships to foster dialogue and empathy and help bridge the racial and ethnic divides within our society that have existed for so many years.

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.  We are learning a lot. And will always aim high in our efforts to make a difference on the issues that matter most.  

I want to thank those of you who took time this week to share what you were seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking as we rolled out Race Together across the country.  An issue as tough as racial and ethnic inequality requires risk-taking and tough-minded action. And let me reassure you that our conviction and commitment to the notion of equality and opportunity for all has never been stronger.

Take care of yourselves and each other.  I am proud to be your partner. 

With great respect,