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Starbucks, racial bias, and brand humanity

Rapidly changing consumer demands for humanity and how Starbucks is tackling racial bias.

Let’s talk about Starbucks. Unless you’re in a coma, you must have heard about the two black men arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for sitting there without ordering anything.

First, let’s discuss the obvious. I am not a person of color. My experience with racial bias is second hand, limited to accounts shared by friends and from what I read. And even though I am an openly gay white man, who understands discrimination firsthand, I am nonetheless still a white man living in a society of rules and biases created for white men. So, my ability to comment on whether or not what Starbucks is doing is enough, appropriate, or helpful is limited.

My ability to comment on what Starbucks is doing from a brand perspective is less limited, so if you are interested, I am happy to share my thoughts here.

To judge any brand’s action, one must go back to its brand strategy and, as far as I can tell, their brand strategy focuses on their promise of “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

By this litmus test, having two men arrested for sitting around your store is not inspiring or nurturing. However, the idea of shutting down all your U.S. stores to talk about and make clear the company’s position on racial bias, both overt and subtle, is at least heading in the right direction. It is, in my opinion, on brand. It is true to the brand’s focus on the individual and not his or her intake of caffeine.

The humanity of our relationships with brands
is taking on more importance despite
— or perhaps because of — our shift to
increasingly digital encounters with one another.

Is it a publicity stunt? Personally, I do not think so. It’s way too expensive a stunt. Not only are they losing revenue that day, but they will also have to pay everyone to come into work, not just the usual contingency. Plus, they will have to hire a least one consulting firm to help them develop the curriculum, synchronize, distribute, and facilitate it across the country. That, my friends, I assure you, will come with a hefty price tag.

Why make a big deal of it then, if it’s not a publicity stunt? Why not do it behind the scenes?

The market demands to know what they’re doing, that’s why. Consumers — particularly younger ones — demand to understand where their money is going. The best quality for lowest price is no longer the ultimate goal. Consumers have a need to know that their dollars are not, at the very least, making the world a worse place than it already is. Ideally, those dollars do the opposite.

Plus, a bold move like shutting down the stores sets the bar higher for everyone else. If that unfortunate episode of the doctor getting pulled off a United Airlines plane happened tomorrow and not a year ago, do you think that United would be allowed to get by with their limited comments and apologies? Maybe. Maybe not.

Let’s take another example, Dick’s Sporting Goods. After yet another mass shooting, not only have they stopped selling assault-style rifles and high capacity magazines, they are destroying all those on their shelves that haven’t sold.

What’s their brand promise? “Make a lasting impact in our communities through sport.” In my opinion, their actions sync with their brand strategy, all while educating their consumers and raising the bar for their contemporaries.

The world is changing, and it’s changing quickly. Consumer expectations are moving away from the transactional. The humanity of our relationships with brands is taking on more importance despite — or perhaps because of — our shift to increasingly digital encounters with one another.

What about your brand? Does it have enough humanity? I could be wrong, but success will be increasingly fleeting without it.

Douglas Spencer

Spencer Brenneman, LLC
Copyright 2018

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