Media experts as well as thousands on social media criticized the Race Together campaign by Starbucks as uninspired and ineffectual at best. Starbucks says it’s trying to spark an important conversation and insists it’s not a marketing ploy.

Share story

Howard Schultz often veers off the usual CEO script by having the company he runs tackle social and political issues, from gay rights to veterans. But in using the Starbucks platform to talk about the thorny issue of race, has he stepped on a land mine?

The company’s initiative this week to spark conversations about racism by having baristas write “Race Together” on coffee cups triggered an Internet firestorm of criticism, as thousands criticized the effort as ineffective, insincere, or just plain insipid.

More polite than many was Twitter user Mark Vuletic, who posted a message praising Starbucks competitor Peet’s: “great coffee without social engineering. #racetogether.”

Ralina Joseph, who teaches communications at the University of Washington and specializes in media representations of race, gender and sexuality, said she found the effort confusing: “To simply drop the idea that we should just start talking about race with our baristas seems incredibly misguided.”

She said Starbucks should have offered a more specific attack on racism — such as addressing how few minorities there are in the company’s top ranks.

The icy reception faced by Starbucks’ campaign underscores how challenging it is for big companies to tackle social issues, said Dan Hill, of Ervin Hill Strategy, a public-affairs firm in Washington D.C.

To many “it might look opportunistic,” or superficial in its handling of a delicate issue, he said.

Schultz might have done better to undertake this project on a personal basis, rather than leaning on Starbucks, Hill said.

The negative social-media onslaught was such that a high-ranking Starbucks spokesman, Corey duBrowa, temporarily shut down his Twitter account at midnight on Tuesday. In an email, duBrowa said he was “personally attacked” and felt the tweets “represented a distraction from the respectful conversation we are trying to start.”

“We knew this wouldn’t be easy, but we feel it is well worth the discomfort,” duBrowa added.

The campaign and the backlash were highlighted at the company’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday. Mellody Hobson, a prominent investment executive who sits on the Starbucks board and is African American, told shareholders that “race today is one of the most controversial issues” out there. “We’ve certainly seen that in the last 24 hours, right?”

Before the meeting, Starbucks released some statistics about the ethnic and racial makeup of its workforce: 40 percent of its U.S. staffers are ethnic minorities, and so are 18 percent of its top 50 leaders.

It also showed an eight-page supplement, produced jointly with USA Today, that it will distribute both in that newspaper and in its stores as part of what it calls a yearlong effort “to stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America.”

The section contains an assortment of statistics and facts about race, and ends with a questionnaire that prompts readers to ask themselves how many friends of a different race their parents, and they themselves, have had.

Schultz defended the campaign on the stage, saying it’s not a marketing exercise. “There will be some in the media that criticize Starbucks for having an agenda,” he said. “Our intentions are pure.”

While some have wondered whether Starbucks’ efforts might end up damaging its brand, Shailendra Jain, a professor of marketing at UW’s Foster School of Business, said that’s unlikely.

“The initial weather Starbucks is facing will peter out in some time. Not completely, but significantly,” he said.

Shareholders didn’t seem turned off by Starbucks’ latest political engagement — especially as the company’s valuation soared further into record territory on news of its first 2-for-1 stock split in a decade.

Starbucks’ effort to encourage discussions about race is “wonderful,” said Audri Takagi, of Bellevue, who says she put her daughter through college in part thanks to the performance of Starbucks shares. “It’s time someone in corporate America did something.”