Rutgers responds to Starbucks's "#RaceTogether" campaign
Coffee company Starbucks moved customers, critics and social media when requesting consumers to order a side of social justice with their morning coffee.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Starbucks baristas were told to write “Race Together” on cups starting March 16, and to initiate discussions about race with customers. The campaign is one of chief executive officer Howard Schultz’s many efforts to incorporate social issues and awareness in Starbucks stores.
"Race Together" began in response to the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black male in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014.
Schultz said it was an attempt to show that the promise of "The American Dream" should be available to every person in this country, not just a select few, according to NBC News.
“It was an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society, one conversation at a time,” Schultz said in a USA TODAY article.
He said it was meant to foster dialogue and empathy, and to help bridge the racial and ethnic divides within our society that have existed for 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,” Schultz said.
Strong criticism on social media immediately followed the campaign. “Race Together” ended less than one week after it began. Schultz said this was the plan from the beginning and had nothing to do with the negative reaction.
Customers who criticize the campaign called it inappropriate and an attempt to create a marketing strategy over a sensitive tragedy. Critics argue corporations should not have influence over political issues.
“The Starbucks plan is a flawed one. A ‘conversation’ about race cannot be a fleeting one. It certainly cannot be an under-caffeinated one,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Schultz said the company starting this dialogue is what matters most. He said they are learning a lot and will continue to aim high in their efforts to make a difference on issues that matter most.
"It was supposed to bring an issue to light that is not usually talked about,” said Trisha Perez, the manager of a Starbucks in New Brunswick.
Despite the March 22 order to terminate the campaign issued by Schultz, Perez said baristas felt comfortable speaking to customers on the issues of race, with reactions differing among customers.
Still, some baristas were not in support of the campaign, feeling that they would not have enough time to do their job effectively if they had to engage in controversial conversation during high-traffic hours.
“Some customer said it helped them become aware of issues regarding race, but some responses were negative,” Perez said. “Several customers thought a coffee shop was not the appropriate place to talk about these issues.”
Although there were disagreements, Perez thought conversations always remained respectful and without argument in the crowd.
Starbucks ended this campaign, but are far from over in their attempt to tackle the issue of race. They plan to open coffee shops in lower income areas, include forums to discuss race and hire employees of diverse backgrounds, according to USA Today.
College students and young adults are a main target market, totaling 40 percent of Starbucks sales, according to Small Businesses. Reactions from students have also been mixed.
“It is a good way to get people thinking about the real issues behind race, but a coffee cup won’t change the world,” said Joana Marmelo, a Rutgers Business School first-year.
She said that Starbucks is still heading in the right direction and it is nice to see them trying to make a difference.
“Making people aware of what is going on, is the first step in changing an issue,” Marmelo said.
Connie Fiacco, a Rutgers University School of Art and Sciences junior, felt more hesitant about this campaign's potential success.
“I know most students and I are usually in a rush when running into Starbucks for a quick coffee break while studying,” she said. “Having baristas ask me about my feelings on race when I am rushing to class may not be the best time or place to do so.”
She said there is also potential for arguments to break out, even if their aim is only to foster discussion on the issues.
“I give Starbucks credit for their initiative and goals with regards to the race issue," Fiacco said. "However, there are better alternatives than writing #racetogether on the sides of cups.”