‘Race Together’ Campaign Elicits Huge Response on Social Media
(and it’s Not Good)
Rick Miller

Starbucks’ recent “Race Together” campaign sparked substantial social media discussions among consumers and marketers alike. But most of these conversations were not about race, as the coffee giant intended, and instead were negative reactions to the campaign and the brand itself.

The campaign, which launched last week and then quickly concluded (supposedly according to plan), was an attempt to spark discussions about race across the country. Regardless of Starbucks’ intentions, the general public and other brand marketers did not react well. In fact, Networked Insights, a social media research and analytics firm, found that consumers on social media largely responded with hate towards Starbucks, while most marketers stated that the campaign itself was a mistake.


Consumer Conversation and Sentiment

When the campaign was first launched, Networked Insights found that more than one-third of social conversation was categorized as “hate” directed at the brand, the Race Together campaign, or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Furthermore, nearly 60 percent of all conversation from the public contained some specific negative emotion.

Even as Starbucks pulled back on the campaign, conversations about Race Together remained elevated on social media. From March 20-22, Networked Insights found that brand discussions were still 85 percent higher than normal. Unfortunately for Starbucks, the continued conversations still echoed with anger and other emotions. Despite Starbucks’ public stoppage of the campaign, less than one-fifth of conversation revolved around its cancellation. And, the bulk of that was simply social media users sharing news of the pullout.

Marketer Reactions

Marketers were more critical of the campaign than consumers. Industry insiders categorized the campaign as “a fail” or “a mistake,” and according to Networked Insights, roughly 66 percent of their discussions were decidedly critical.

Conversation about Starbucks increased 196 percent within the marketers audience on March 17 and 408 percent on March 18 when compared with conversation trends over the previous month.

Key Takeaways

Starbucks learned a difficult lesson, but other brands do not have to: Social analytics affords brands the opportunity to anticipate how consumers will react to cause-based campaigns – especially those with heightened cultural sensitivity.  Brands that have a history of genuinely supporting a cause, before a campaign sees the limelight, are more likely to be better received by consumers. For example, when Michael Sam made his bid to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, we explored which brands might make the most logical sponsors based on how Sam’s supporters discussed each brand. Notable brands on the list included the following:

  • Nike (which launched its #betrue product line specifically to support the LGBT community)
  • AT&T (which has a history of actively promoting workplace diversity)
  • Adidas

Networked Insights also found that messaging around “courage” for the Sam campaign was not the best way to convey support for the athlete in brand messaging, despite that the narrative in the mainstream media focused on his courage for coming out. Consumers, on the contrary, wanted to see messaging oriented toward how Sam achieved his goals. This foresight could have helped the brands make campaign decisions to better align their messaging with the perceptions and tastes of their audiences.

Social media gave the world a front row seat to Starbucks’ recent embarrassment, but applied with some forethought, social data can help brands avoid Starbucks’ mistakes and build more endearing, and more effective, campaigns around sensitive topics.

Rick Miller is the Vice President of customer insights at Networked Insights. He contributes to corporate strategy and product development while managing an insights team that provides cutting-edge brand and product research.