Starbucks Realizes for Social Branding to Work, You Have to Walk the Talk

Neil Foote - Starbucks Realizes for Social Branding to Work, You Have to Walk the TalkNeil Foote, President & Founder, Foote Communications

For almost as long as they have existed, Starbucks has been known as a “third place” – one of those convenience places people regularly go to meet others. Face it, how many times a week or month do you set up a client meeting at a nearby Starbucks? Or stop by there with laptop or tablet in hand to knock out some work? How many times have you seen other customers with or without coffee seemingly set up shop, using that table for their office? Did you know that if you use the bathroom or tables without purchasing anything that you are trespassing?

The arrest of two black men in Philadelphia for trespassing now puts Starbucks in the middle of a brand crisis. There are those who feel the company’s employees were just doing their jobs and others, who have now called for a boycott of Starbucks, who think the two men were called out for trespassing because of their race. It was just three years ago that Starbucks launched its #RaceTogether campaign, which I applauded as an effort to use the high-trafficked and highly visible business as a venue to proactively and civilly discuss race.  Somewhere along the way, Starbucks lost its way as so many companies do when it comes to race and inclusion issues.

Starbucks Realizes for Social Branding to Work, You Have to Walk the TalkToo often, companies respond with a knee-jerk reaction to race and gender issues. Over the course of the past year, the #MeToo campaign has fueled a wave of gender sensitivity and implicit bias training sessions.  In fact, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross says his police officers didn’t do anything wrong and arrested the men who were asked politely to leave the restaurant. He specifically says his officers must do implicit bias training and even takes them to the African-American and Holocaust Museums in Washington, D.C. to help them become more conscious about the racially and ethnically diverse world in which we live.

For Starbuck’s CEO Kevin Johnson, who has apologized, he is seriously shortsighted in thinking when he says that his manager didn’t think the men would be arrested.  As a black man in America, you live every day fearing that someone will “misunderstand” you – not because you said or did anything – just because you entered a restaurant, a store, a business.  As a black man in America, you are on the spot all the time. It’s widely known that in Washington, D.C., many taxis would bypass black men – even those dressed in their Sunday’s best.  I’ve been in stores where my friends and I have been followed by store security.  I’ve been to restaurants where the hostess sits all the black people in the section with the black waiter. It’s commonly accepted in many restaurants that waiters hate to wait on table with people of color and use racially pejorative names to describe them.

So, let’s be for real. This Starbucks incident is nothing new for black men or many diverse people.  There’s a prevailing hateful tone emanating from Washington, D.C. that racial and ethnic diversity is bad, which is fueling a backlash that is spilling over at Starbucks and in cities all over the country.  It’s noble that Johnson wants to meet with these men. But Johnson needs to make it clear what its trespassing policy and post it prominently in its 28,000 stores. Otherwise, the #ShutdownStarbucks will become devastating brand-killing campaign spurred on by one employee who thought she was enforcing policy, but instead sparked another necessary conversation about the ongoing clash between race and culture in America.


About the Author: Neil Foote is a veteran journalist and media executive. He draws from his experience at the Miami Herald, Washington Post, Belo Corporation and Tom Joyner’s Reach Media. He also teaches digital and social media for journalists, media management and business journalism at the University of North Texas’ Frank W. & Sue Mayborn School of Journalism and runs Foote Communications, a media consulting firm. The native of Brooklyn, NY also is president of the board for the National Black Public Relations Society and founder of