Starbucks, Race and "Corporate" Anthropology

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations will be encouraged to start conversations about race relations by scribbling "Race Together" on customers' cups.

Baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations will be encouraged to start conversations about race relations by scribbling "Race Together" on customers' cups.

Some issues are so touchy that even talking about them generates controversy, as Starbucks discovered with its initiative to have baristas engage coffee drinkers with ad lib comments on their cups about race.

The "Race Together" initiative was another effort by CEO Howard Schultz to stir things up. It certainly created a lot of buzz, both pro and con. And, by all accounts, it has provoked some conversations that may never have occurred.

Just getting the initiative out there has sparked conversation, however awkward, about a subject that is often cast, quite literally, in black and white terms.

Recent events, including an aggressive arrest of a black University of Virginia undergraduate this week,  have added even a sharper edge to racial relations. More people are protesting, but fewer people may be talking, at least to each over the racial divide.

A lot of brands see it in their own self-interest to keep their heads bowed to the grindstone. Focus on the product and service. Make sales, not waves.

Starbucks is a corporate phenomenon of a different stripe.  At least as Schultz has steered his ship, Starbucks doesn't just serve coffee; it creates a community to engage over coffee. This same philosophy may not work for, say, a company that makes power tools. But it may be a path other brands might consider, especially those that want to be viewed as contemporary and transparent.

What Starbucks is doing to spur conversations about race can be seen as in line with a broader movement to embrace culture anthropology as an avenue to gain insight into customer preferences. Instead of sifting through big data, anthropologists observe customer behavior, just as they might observe tribal habits in a remote Pacific Island.

What they learn can be startling and often at odds with conventional thinking. For example, customers of a line of sports apparel may be less interested in gaining a competitive edge than in staying healthy. That insight can lead to a vastly different tagline and advertising. You see your customer less through your own preconceptions and more in their natural element.

In many ways, that's what the Starbucks campaign is doing. The company can withstand a snarky tweet about not wanting a sermon on a coffee cup in return for percolating authentic, if at times awkward, conversations about a subject most people avoid.

You don't need to be a cultural anthropologist to know talking is better than shouting on a subject like race. And if you are in the business of creating communities, then you should be prepared for conversations about subjects that really matter.

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