Race Together Movement Doesn't Damage Starbucks

04/27/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

Race Together movement doesn't damage Starbucks, yet does it help build its brand and relationships with consumers?

Over the years as a marketer, I have seen how brands that live in the real world not outside it, fare better than those who do not. When advertising is at its best, it understands and expresses the inner feeling associated with the product and the company. It not only carries a message to the people in the street, it takes a stand, makes people think and encourages a dialog with them that hopefully makes both them and the company grow stronger and feel happier as a person for every day this dialog continues.

Having followed the Starbucks "Race Together" marketing movement, I was glad to read Ilan Brat's piece in the Wall Street Journal that Starbucks reported stronger sales and sharply higher profit in its latest quarter. Perhaps this is not a scientific indication that movement marketing moves people to move product. However it's certainly an early indication that its financial results are unscathed by the social media debate on its efforts to instigate conversations on race relations. According to the WSJ, there is no indication that Race Together -- the move into the important and socially relevant issue -- hurt sales though it did gain the brand a massive amount of free publicity.

If you who have been on another planet the past quarter, Starbucks sparked a national movement called "Race Together" to encourage conversations about U.S. race relations. While some consumers, me included, applauded the Race Together efforts for doing something more counter-intuitive: In these volatile times, I think brands actually should become more willing to take a stand. They should become more activist, not less. But they should do so in a thoughtful, considered way that is more likely to put them on the same side of passionate issues as their customers are.

Contrary to this point of view, some critics have said that Race Together was trying to capitalize on recent racially charged controversies in the country. Others said that trying to inject race into the selling of coffee didn't make any sense. Faris Yakob, author of Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, tweeted that "Instead of white privilege -- initiate conversations about corporate privilege." Other critics proclaimed that while the movement idea was right on the money, the execution fell flat because Starbucks wrote Race Together on coffee cups without giving employees advanced training to discuss the passionate issue with customers.

Putting aside the debate around this story to look at the marketing side of it (I can't help it, I'm a marketer), I have to wonder: Going forward, how might this help affect the way advertisers think about fundamental questions like "What do we stand for?" and "Who do we stand with?"

If brands haven't fully answered those questions, they'd better. Because if there's anything we've learned in recent months through Race Together, it's that we're living in an age of movements and uprisings. And the uprisings extend beyond politics or social issues, spilling into the world of commerce. Today, brands have the power to ignite passions and stir up debate. In late March 2015, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in a letter to employees said, "I know this hasn't been easy for you -- let me assure you that we didn't expect universal praise," adding that starting this dialogue is what matters most. "We are learning a lot. And will always aim high in our efforts to make a difference on the issues that matter most," according to the WSJ. He went on to say that that he intends to continue the Race Together movement and also to focus on building new stores in low income areas including Ferguson, Mo., the site of protests last year after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown.

So again, we come back to: How will marketers react to all of this, going forward? In my book Uprising, I interrogate this new world for marketers. Knowing that the world around has become so volatile, should they respond by becoming more cautious, by trying to stay far way from anything that could ever, in any way, be perceived as controversial?

I worry that some may react that way: The lesson they may take away from this is: Stay away from outspoken people; don't get involved in any issues; play it safe. Trouble is, that's also the quickest way to make a brand invisible and irrelevant. If you play it safe in today's boisterous marketing environment, well, it's true that you won't have crowds rising up against you -- they'll be too busy ignoring you. That's why I think marketers will need to become more willing to take a stand.

A movement strategy starts with figuring out what your brand's core values are. What are you for? What are you against? Traditionally, marketers have been reluctant to take a stand against anything because it can feel controversial or divisive. But the truth is, some of the boldest marketers have been doing this kind of thing successfully for quite a while (think of Apple, which in its early days came out strongly against conformity and the "Big Brother" world of computing). And today, more than ever, consumers are looking for brands that share their values and outlook. One case in point is the fast rising brand Nature's Variety Instinct that came out in a recent national movement for rescue dogs (full disclosure StrawberryFrog worked on this example).

Too many brands don't seem to stand for anything. And so they end up being defined and judged -- and sometimes found guilty -- by association. Movements can also help marketers overcome the problem of brands not paying enough attention to their customers. What Starbucks shows is that movements can help marketers overcome the problem of brands not paying enough attention to what really matters to people. What are the issues that are on their minds? What are they passionate about? What are they talking to each other about? What's an idea or issue on the rise in culture? Brands live in the middle of culture and should align with ideas that are relevant to people beyond simply cliché product ads. People are motivated by a delicious cup of coffee, but they expect more from brands today such as ethics and values that they share.

In our experience at my agency StrawberryFrog, we've found that when brands are willing to take a deep look at themselves -- their culture and their values -- and, simultaneously, are also inclined to really pay attention to what's going on in the lives of their core consumers, it can lead to epiphanies. This is what we should be talking about to our customers. This is what we should be helping them do in their lives. When that happens, they begin to have their own clear purpose and mission. They're in a position to do more than just run ads; they can launch an initiative, or better yet, a movement.

To really be part of this age of uprising, your brand has to be willing to get out there and mix it up. I'm not talking about spouting words in an ad ("We care about the same things as you!") or even just throwing money at a cause d'jour. I believe brands now must demonstrate their values and beliefs through action. Use your resources to help customers become more active and involved in the issues they care about. Create platforms for them. Help them form communities. Set up events where they can rally behind an idea or principle.

"What uprisings should teach CEOs is to look at the big conversations in the world and ask themselves what do we have to offer. Really standing for something isn't as simple as writing a check or pulling an ad budget; it has to come from the heart of the company," says Jon Miller, the author of the Business of Brands, who also worked with Nike on the Girl's Effect.

Really standing for something isn't as simple as writing a check, it has to come from the heart of the company.

Brands that can do this can actually tap into the passion and volatility of this new era, instead of running from it. The idea is to be more proactive: to take your own stand, instead of letting some talking head (supported by your ad dollars) take a stand that has nothing to do with you. And to be out there marching with people, instead of worrying that someday they might be marching against you.

Having said all this, one last question is worth asking: Should companies, brands, or CEOs, even attempt to spark movements? Aren't movements and uprisings supposed to be for nobler causes? I think there is a profound need for CEOs and CMOs to learn from uprisings. Here's what I think. Movements -- at least, the kind of movements that gather around positive, creative, dynamic ideas are good for all. They build a better world and they move people to move product.

Studying uprising offers also further lessons for CEOs and CMOs. Why do millennials and Gen Z hate corporations so much? Leaders of big organizations think they are doing good for the world. CEOs who can articulate a clear movement idea and a purpose for their company can inspire people to get behind them the way Chipotle has managed to do with their movement against traditional fast food industry.

After studying movements for over 20 years and having sparked a few for iconic clients, I believe brands must connect with that passion and activism somehow. If you fail to respond to this shift in the culture, you run the risk of being out of step with your customers. Your company could end up looking like a "status quo" brand in a revolutionary world.