Commentary

Social Media: Yes, The Starbucks Thing Was A Bad Idea

Starbucks’ heart may have been in the right place, but its brain was on vacation. That seems to be the general sentiment on social media a week after the coffee juggernaut’s controversial “Race Together” program, in which barristas encouraged customers to engage them about race relations, widely regarded as the “third rail” of American culture, society, and politics.

That’s according to a social media postmortem (and I use the term advisedly) conducted by Networked Insights, which tracked the volume and tenor of social media discussion about “Race Together.” As Networked Insights Vice President of Customer Insights Rick Miller put it when I tried to be nice about it and characterized the response as “mixed”: “The response was not even mixed, the response was just bad. I’ve actually never seen such an overwhelmingly negative response to a PR effort like this.”

How bad, you ask? Well, it certainly got people’s attention: last week the volume of social buzz around Starbucks was 266% higher than usual. Within the social media content about Starbucks which showed any sign of emotional engagement, 60% was negative and 35% was extremely, vituperatively negative -- what Miller characterized as “hating on the brand.” After Starbucks called the initiative off (supposedly as planned all along), this week social media discussion was still 85% above normal -- but the proportion of extremely negative buzz “hating on the brand” increased to 55%.

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So did anyone like the idea, at all? Well, 7% of the social media buzz was “empathetic,” but even here according to Miller, “we did see were some strains of conversations saying they tried to do the right thing but they just really screwed it up.” When that’s your positive buzz, well -- that’s just not very positive.

On that note, Networked Insights was also able to examine why people objected to the campaign so strongly, and found that, yup, it was all in the execution -- specifically asking barristas to somehow lead a fruitful discussion of one of the most complex, vexing issues imaginable, often as customers are on their way to work. Miller summed up the reactions: “This was just an absolute awful time to have this conversation.  I might be willing to have this conversation, but not with my barrista, and not now.” 

Of course, Starbucks isn’t the only corporation to put its foot in PR doodoo this year. Miller noted that in the wake of its now infamous “Make Safe Happen” Super Bowl ad, Nationwide Insurance saw conversations expressing “sadness” and “horror” about its brand account for 30% of all brand conversations in the 24 hours after the TV spot aired.

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