Effectively Integrate Social Issues into Marketing: Lessons from Starbucks

Would you like your coffee with a side of racial debate? Earlier this week, Starbucks began its #racetogether campaign. The campaign encourages baristas to write the hashtag on customers’ cups and then discuss race relations with them.  The idea came to life from an internal conversation with 2,000 Starbucks employees about racial events in Ferguson, MO. While a valiant effort to address a crucial and pressing social issue, the campaign fell flat. By flat, I mean it was a complete failure that got people talking about the brand in the worst way. Social media discussions were more focused on baristas’ inability to get orders right, spell names correctly on cups, Starbucks lack of diversity on their leadership team, and a slew of other complaints.

Starbucks’ CEO, Howard Schultz has always involved his coffee corporation in controversial social issues including gay marriage and gun control. This insertion was not as effective as the company’s previous efforts. When integrating social issues into marketing, the main component consumers want to see is genuineness and sincerity from the company. Consumers can spot a phony and know when a company is jumping on the bandwagon to make a buck. Starbucks was quickly called out for not having more diversity in leadership, more urban locations in diverse communities, and their overall hiring practices. While I think Starbucks was genuinely trying to spark a positive dialogue around a sensitive issue, I think they went about it the wrong way.


Starbucks could have made key locations host community dialogues rather than creating additional duties for already overworked baristas. The campaign shows the need for a more diverse voice in their leadership. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the campaign plays out. Starbucks is partnered with US Today and they will have special inserts in the next few upcoming issues. So far, the one thing the campaign has done is shed more light on how uncomfortable people are discussing racial issues in America. So how else could Starbucks have improved its campaign?

The first key to success for effectively integrating social issues into marketing is to make sure they align with your corporate image, brand, and overall mission. As disgruntled Twitter users pointed out, Starbucks has a few racial issues they need to address internally before pushing it out into the world. While their issue of racial equality and justice is an extremely sensitive topic for this country, there are less controversial issues that consumers are passionate about that your brand can get behind.  From girls’ self-esteem, to bullying, to the environment, there are plenty of issues to engage your consumers. The second key to success is moderation. Don’t push out your social message too fast or all at once. Ease your cause into your marketing and let consumers get on board before doing too much too quickly.


Consumers are more engaged with marketing efforts that integrate social issues they care about. With consumers having a stronger and louder voice than ever with social media, it is better for corporations to take a stand on social issues deepening their brand identity and making it easier for consumers to connect to them on an emotional level. It takes research, time, care, and money to figure out what your consumer base cares about. But it all will pay off in the long run and create stronger loyalty for your brand.  Proudly stand behind your cause, but ensure that it is the right cause to rally behind for your brand and your consumer.

Learn how Dove and Kraft Foods effectively integrated Social Issues into Their Marketing


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