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Where Starbucks' Howard Schultz went wrong with #racetogether

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (SBUX) waded headlong into the national discussion on race in the United States with his company’s “Race Together” campaign, which encouraged customers to talk about race in America with their Starbucks barista while they wait for their mocha soy latte each morning.

Schultz succeeded in starting a debate, but perhaps not the one he intended. The public reaction was as strong, if not stronger, on the question of what Schultz was thinking. There was a swift backlash against the campaign and Schultz for leading it.

But did he accomplish his goal of starting a conversation on race as well?

“I think it’s up for debate if [Howard Schultz] failed or not,” says Caroline Fairchild, New Economy Editor at LinkedIn (LNKD). “He was trying to start a conversation about race relations and he was using his storefronts as a way to do that.”

Fairchild highlights one post on LinkedIn that drew a lot of attention by breaking down Schultz’ mistakes.

“We had a post written by a UC Berkeley undergrad that has over 350,000 views that does say that there was some branding problems and some execution problems with the campaign itself. One of the things that the writer points out is that the marketing campaign itself that has the cups with 'race together' written on them – it’s all white hands holding the cups, which didn’t look too good for Starbucks.”

But Fairchild says others, including tech writer David Kirkpatrick, defended Schultz for trying to do something socially conscious.

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Whether the move was political or pure, Schultz got America talking and corporate America thinking about its role in social issues. So will  wesee more campaigns like this from Schultz?

“Well certainly we can expect Howard Schultz to continue this parade of taking on difficult issues. This isn’t the first issue he’s come forward in terms of using the company as a way to kind of platform something. He’s come forward this way with gay marriage, now he’s doing race relations. I don’t think it’s political as much as it is him understanding that there’s a problem in corporate America with race, and if he wants to be the poster child of that, then that’s a decision he’s making."

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