Good intentions don’t always produce good results

While the intent of the Starbucks Race Together campaign – “to stimulate conversation, compassion, and action around race in America with the goal of encouraging greater understanding and empathy” – sounds like a good one on paper, the harsh truth for brand marketers is that good intentions don’t always produce good results.

A hefty dose of pragmatism is always warranted and brands should consider the ways in which a well-intentioned campaign could be received negatively.

Timing matters

When all is said and done, Starbucks might come to the conclusion that the timing of its Race Together campaign was too aggressive.

In the wake of high-profile incidents involving race, recent polls have found that Americans are more pessimistic about race relations than they have been in decades.

While brands like Starbucks can view that as an opportunity to contribute to positive change, they should also consider that timing can influence how well a message is received. A good message badly timed can be as poorly received as a bad message.

Structure must be strategic

One of the biggest criticisms of the Race Together campaign is that it’s too in-your-face. Should baristas really be engaging complete strangers – Starbucks customers – in conversation about a sensitive topic like race?

One aspect of the campaign that has been used against Starbucks on social media is the fact that baristas have been encouraged to write “Race Together” on coffee cups.

In many cases, leaving a physical artifact is crucial to a successful marketing campaign, as these artifacts lend themselves to social sharing, but in this case, photos of “Race Together” written where a customer’s name usually goes have been shared on social media and used as evidence of Starbucks’ overreach.

Campaigns with social and political overtones are fraught with risk

Timing aside, campaigns that are directly or indirectly related to social and political issues will always carry risk. While this is obvious to savvy brand marketers, it’s easy to underestimate the risk.

That is because no matter how in tune a brand believes it is with the collective unconscious, it’s difficult to predict how large numbers of people will react to social and political issues.

Exacerbating the risk is the fact that these issues can be polarizing, and small but vocal groups that disagree very strongly with a campaign’s message often have the ability to create more negative buzz than one might expect.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that brands shouldn’t seek to weigh in on topics that matter to them. They should, and Starbucks has been very successful creating conversations around issues that involve more than coffee.

But brands also need to be realistic about the dangers of inserting themselves into already heated conversations.

Quitting isn’t an option

While Starbucks SVP of global communications and international public affairs Corey duBrowa claims Starbucks was prepared for a backlash, stating “we knew this wouldn’t be easy, but we feel that it is worth the discomfort,” his decision to temporarily shutter his Twitter account has only added fuel to the backlash fire.

When a campaign creates negative buzz, brands have a number of options. They can seek to better explain their intentions. They can also apologize if they believe a mistake was made.

But allowing a high-profile executive to quit social media, temporarily or permanently, simply isn’t a viable approach.