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The recent arrest of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks has become a national headline: an unfortunate incident that has become a symbol for racial bias in America. Starbucks is at the center of a national crossroads. When the event first became known, everyone wondered if Starbucks would publicly apologize and quietly settle with the victims, hoping that the whole thing would blow over quickly? Or, would it take action and ultimately choose a side in the ‘debate’ about systematic racial bias?
We’re seeing now that they are taking the latter road – the road less traveled by high-profile brands in the past – and accepting their newfound position in the national spotlight. And their best move, so far, has been to take a very public, very personal stance on social media. They've been managing the community response in a tactful, sincere, and personal way in-thread.
First, let’s go back to the beginning of all of this.
On May 12, 2018, two black men were arrested by bicycle cops at a Philadelphia Starbucks for being in the store without ordering.
On April 14 th, Starbucks issued a statement and an apology seemed to be their only solution.
By April 15 th, the video had become a national news story.
On May 17th, Starbucks started to find their footing with an announcement. It would, according to a statement, “be closing its more than 8,000 company-owned stores in the United States on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in our stores. The training will be provided to nearly 175,000 partners (employees) across the country, and will become part of the onboarding process for new partners.”
The announcement was met with criticism. Would one day of training be the saving act for the global, seemingly vanilla brand? How could they get enough training to turn around centuries of racial bias for their employees everywhere?
Some felt like it just wasn’t enough.
Some felt outraged at what they perceived as a perfectly expectable outcome to “loitering”.
Someone even made a fake advertisement for Starbucks, making it seem like the brand was using the circumstance to push out a coupon.
Social communities were heated and people everywhere were engaging in conversation about a national story with Starbucks at the center.
Both fans and critics took to the announcements on social media to voice their opinions. A lesser brand would have stood by and left their fans alone to face their critics, but Starbucks chose swift action. Almost every thread from the now-pinned announcement on their official Twitter account has a perfectly-crafted, sincere response from the brand. All of their responses ladder up to a central message: “We know we screwed up. We take responsibility. We’re trying to make the world a better place.”
Here's the impressive thing: this kind of real-life, in-line response doesn’t come easy or cheap. This is a team of brand community managers finding the right comments that need a personal response from the brand and then writing those responses with all of the sincerity they can muster, as brand advocates in the brand’s voice. I can't imagine the influx of direct messages they're having to respond to, right now. An executive team probably scrutinizes every reply. None of these are canned. They know that Twitter late-night warriors will be able to smell a canned response from a mile away.
By taking a stance and answering the community outcry on social networks, they’re telling their fans, followers, and any potential Starbucks customer, “We care. It matters to us.”
The younger generations - the ones with the most coffee-buying power - will hear this message loud and clear. The Starbucks audience is not the kind of audience to mince words (as evidenced by the Twitter and Facebook response). They want transparency. This audience wants to know what a brand stands for because ultimately, their affiliation with the brand makes a statement about them as individuals.
All of this leads me to believe that Starbucks will make it through this incident with a bit of history on their shoulders, and they will have been on the right side of it.