Business

Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign is bad marketing, but great branding

The premise behind Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign is almost sweet in its simplicity: We can solve issues if we talk about them. It’s also ill-conceived, impractical, and won’t likely sell a single cup of coffee. That’s why other brands should follow its lead.

Asking baristas to engage customers in broad, vague conversations about race is like daring them with “Does God exist?” or “Is light a wave, or a particle?” It would be one thing if Starbucks’ employees proposed the topic, perhaps based on some shared desire to address something that’s relevant to their work lives, but it seems that relevance to one employee, CEO Howard Schultz, was all the impetus the campaign needed. It risks doing nothing for anybody else.

Now, just imagine you’re in line, and a barista is engaged in a thoughtful, animated conversation with a customer ahead of you about being black (or white, or whatever). The minutes tick by, and the line doesn’t move. What’s your engagement on the issue? Aggravation, perhaps abandonment. It might even amount to a disservice to the topic more broadly, since you learn to associate it with your lack of a cup of coffee. It runs contrary to every benefit you expected from your visit.

But this dumb marketing is exactly why it’s such brilliant branding.

Forget its marketing worth (which should be easy). Every angry or snarky tweet is beside the point, and all of the pundit blather about it is irrelevant. The premise that Starbucks has invested in some long-term campaign is silly, hopefully, since there’s no reason to expect it to get better over time.

No, because it’s so bad, the campaign has to be authentic. Starbucks got behind something and did it. Name another brand that is similarly guileless, whether taking a stand on an issue, or simply doing something because, well, because. One that immediately comes to mind is Chik-fil-A, which doesn’t operate its restaurants on would-be lucrative Sundays because of the Christian faith of its owners.

It’s also dumb marketing, but it says a ton about the integrity of Chik-fil-A.

Customers can choose to love or hate either company for what the brands choose to stand for, which is refreshing clarity in an otherwise muddled world of calculated messaging, corporate posturing, and little action that has any connection to anything that doesn’t also have a dollar sign attached to it.

Does Starbucks think its campaign will sell more coffee? I honestly wonder if that even factored into the decision, considering it’s as overtly a bad idea as is Chik-fil-A’s closure on the busiest family dine-out day of the week.

And that’s the point.

So much of the CSR racket has been driven by crass calculation, as has a lot of “meaning marketing” and “content marketing” more broadly. Companies say what their marketers think consumers want to hear. Perhaps that’s why most people not only distrust advertising, but a majority of them believe that the pursuit of innovation overall is driven by ulterior, not-so-visionary motives (and they’re uncomfortable with it).

By giving the world a half-baked, though otherwise principled program, Starbucks is demonstrating what real innovation and brand-building are all about.

#RaceTogether might be remembered as little more than a failed marketing case studied at B-schools, but it’s a hint of what’s possible when a company does the wrong thing for all the right reasons. By doing so, the brand allows us to conclude far more about Starbucks than the sum effects of the specifics.

Branding is a process in which the journey is far more important than the destination. More companies should follow Starbucks’ lead. FORBES

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