Julie Jimenez|Mar 20, 2015

Pick up a copy of the March 20, 2015 edition of USA Today, and you’ll find a special section titled Race Together, which is full of stats, quotes and questions focused on race. Visit one of the 7,300 Starbucks stores in the U.S. and your coffee cup might say #RaceTogether on it.

These elements are all related to a new campaign designed to ignite conversations on race relations, and it’s the brainchild of Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz.

Schultz’s request was simple: He asked baristas at Starbucks stores to voluntarily write #RaceTogether on the cups of coffee they serve as a way to start a conversation with customers on race relations. Schultz, through Starbucks, has a history of tackling major social issues, so while this project isn’t completely out of left field, it has gotten plenty of feedback FAST.

Comedians are making jokes about it; plenty of people are outraged at the simplistic approach; and countless others are probably still asking, “Race to what?” But behind it all people are talking about it.

Everyone from consumers to celebrities (here’s looking at you Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to the heads of major organizations focused on racial justice have weighed in. While the conversation has been framed around whether Schultz is a visionary or an insensitive executive, it has brought the topic of race relations to the forefront of the news cycle.

One of the tenants of rbb’s Breakout Brands strategy is that the brand puts the customer first and commits to the customer relationship. Starbucks ranked eighth on rbb’s 2013 list of the Top 10 Breakout Brands, and while the #RaceTogether campaign may be misguided in its approach, the basis of it is truly customer-focused. Race relations is an issue that affects everyone in the U.S., either directly or indirectly, and it certainly affects Starbucks’ customers.

While the company still has some work to do in terms of how it deals with race issues (an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that 40 percent of the company’s employees are non-white, while only 16 percent of its board are minorities), I give them credit for putting a tough issue front and center with the millions of people who drink their products and read USA Today.

Even if not a single barista writes the hashtag on a coffee cup or engages in a one-on-one conversation with a customer about race relations, Starbucks has already driven the dialogue head-on into the spotlight,. It let its customers know it’s attune to the social issues affecting us all. Now that deserves a grande caramel macchiato.


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