As Sun Tzu stated in The Art of War, “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” In other words, perhaps a low-key approach is better to begin than an extremely head-on one. Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign is an example of the latter. Was Howard Schultz’s idea of “Race Together” bad in and of itself, or was it the execution of the idea? Starbucks has been practicing “conscious capitalism,” for years with campaigns such as employee benefit programs and job creation campaigns. So, what is this idea of “conscious capitalism” and how does this campaign seem different?
Let’s start with the campaign: Was it the idea or the execution that was flawed? One could easily say both. Twitter is bound to find any potential flaws in corporate logic, so companies must practice what they preach. This week Inc.com posted an article highlighting the lack of diversity statistics on Starbucks’ corporate website. Starbucks’ lack of transparency with company diversity left consumers feeling uneasy about Starbucks’ motives for “Race Together.” From a strategic standpoint, how could “Race Together” go right? Let’s examine some of Starbucks’ previous tactics and how they could foster the organic growth of “Race Together.”
Starbucks provided free insertions about “Race Together” in USA Today to promote conversations. Why do most of us talk about anything at any time? Because we read about it somewhere! Good debates need material, so providing individuals with the tools to promote discussions is a great execution strategy. Corporations can come together to help bring about social change. The partnership with USA Today promotes the idea without the need for corporate branding. Why not also look to brands with other big corporate names with locations where people congregate and access to research materials is plentiful, such as Barnes and Noble?
Corporations can let the media pick up what they are doing without being too overt. For example, Starbucks is part of Fair Trade USA. So is Dunkin Donuts, but neither company is using their coffee cups to advertise the fact. Instead, Starbucks takes a subtler approach with in-store posters to promote the initiative. A company practicing something it believes in shouldn’t make it feel forced, but let the conversation flow naturally. Through this natural progress, a company can achieve the initial goals without alienating customers.
So, what is conscious capitalism?
The Harvard Business Review summed it up best in 2013: “‘Conscious Capitalism’ is a way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today, and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world.” How did Starbucks’ campaign seem different? The overt method by which Starbucks initially promoted “Race Together” failed to achieve the objective. As The Economist pointed out, Americans felt Starbucks was doing it “for its own economic gain.” For years, Starbucks has been doing things in the name of conscious capitalism, but hadn’t heralded their efforts so publicly. Promotion and social change can be a delicate balance, but it’s not unobtainable. Other brands have managed to combine these objectives—for example, Dove and its “Real Beauty” campaign. Perhaps Starbucks could take the lessons learned by Dove’s and other companies’ more overt campaigns as examples for how “Race Together” could have been more successful. In other words, Mr. Schultz—great idea but poor execution.