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Starbucks steps into conversation about race

Candice Choi
Associated Press

New York — Starbucks’ campaign aimed at encouraging people to talk about race relations in the U.S. is the latest example of a big company trying to tie its brands to big social issues.

But the move, which has sparked backlash on social media, also illustrates how those efforts can fall flat if customers don’t see a clear correlation between the cause and the company’s products.

U.S. workers for the coffee chain that is best known for its Frappuccinos have been told to write “Race Together” on cups. The company also plans to start publishing “conversation guides” on the topic, with questions like “How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?”

Starbucks, which announced the campaign earlier this week, says it will elaborate on the plans for its campaign at its annual shareholder meeting Wednesday in Seattle.

Already, though, people have been criticizing the move, saying it’s opportunistic and inappropriate for a coffee chain to try to inject itself into such an important issue. But it comes as executives say customers are drawn to companies that project some sort of feel-good image or embrace social causes.

At the annual meeting for Yum Brands Inc., the company that owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, CEO Greg Creed said in December that fast-food chains must evolve from being perceived as “impersonal and industrial” to being able to “demonstrate that we do care.”

Laura Ries, a branding consultant based in Atlanta, said that addressing big important, issues of the day has also become a way for companies to make themselves a part of the conversation. Otherwise, nobody is sitting around on Twitter discussing brands, she said.

Dove soap has generated widespread praise for its campaign celebrating “Real Beauty” by featuring women who don’t look like the typical models. Always, which makes products for women, also got praise for an ad that ran during the Super Bowl seeking to empower young girls. But those were messages that had ties to the products; people don’t associate their morning coffee with race.

“There’s nothing wrong with talking about race relations,” Ries said. “But is it something people naturally associate with Starbucks? It’s not.”

During the annual meeting, Starbucks says one of its board members, Mellody Hobson, will deliver a speech called “Color Blind or Color Brave.”

Patrick Delatore, 18, a customer at a Starbucks in New York City, said a national chain like Starbucks might be able to help change the minds of young people who will shape the country’s direction in the future.

Inserting itself into national issues is not new territory for Starbucks Corp. In late 2012, the chain asked workers to write “Come together” on cups to send a message to lawmakers about stalled budget negotiations.

And in 2013, the chain placed newspaper ads saying that firearms were not welcome in its cafes after they became the site of gun rallies. But the company stopped short of an outright ban.

CEO Howard Schultz said at the time that Starbucks was neither for nor against guns, underscoring that even a company that wants a voice in national conversations has to be careful about alienating customers.