Howard Schultz reveals how he decided to launch Starbucks' 'embarrassing' and 'tone-deaf' 'Race Together' campaign despite internal concerns

Howard Schultz Starbucks CEO Race Together

REUTERS/David Ryder

Howard Schultz, pictured with images from the company's new "Race Together" project behind him.

  • Starbucks' former CEO Howard Schultz describes in his new book, "From the Ground Up," how he decided to launch the chain's "Race Together" campaign, which was widely ridiculed in 2015.
  • Schultz writes that it was ultimately his decision to have baristas write "Race Together" on cups to spark discussion of racial inequality, despite internal concerns.
  • "Starbucks was called tone-deaf and patronizing," Schultz writes. "We were accused of overstepping acceptable bounds for a corporation, seizing upon a moment of national crisis to promote our brand, and preaching through the company megaphone."
  • The incident influenced how Schultz led Starbucks through later controversies and seems to be impacting his potential 2020 presidential run, as the billionaire is once again accused of being "tone-deaf."

Howard Schultz made many difficult decisions in his time as Starbucks' CEO. But, few were as widely ridiculed as the chain's 2015 "Race Together" campaign.

In Schultz's new book, "From the Ground Up," the former CEO and chairman delves into why he made the decision to launch the campaign to address racial inequality.Advertisement

Following a series of internal forums on racial inequality, Starbucks created a discussion guide about the topic to be distributed in Starbucks locations. As the company prepared to launch the initiative, Starbucks' corporate staff floated the idea to write "Race Together" on cups to draw attention to the guide.

The idea sparked internal debate, according to "From the Ground Up." People questioned what the impact could be on baristas. Schultz said that Mellody Hobson, one of two African Americans on Starbucks' board of directors, asked him if he had "moral authority" on the issue.

Schultz made the decision to push forward with the "Race Together" cups. And, Starbucks faced near-instantaneous backlash.

"The remarks unified the public in ways I did not foresee, which was against us," Schultz writes.

According to Schultz, the "volume of negative attention was like nothing the company had ever seen." Schultz recounts headlines such as "The Internet Is United in Despising Starbucks' 'Race Together' Cups."Starbucks' head of global communications was driven off Twitter, with Schultz recalling a "less-offensive" tweet calling him "mayonnaise boy" alongside death threats. Advertisement

"Starbucks was called tone-deaf and patronizing," Schultz writes. "We were accused of overstepping acceptable bounds for a corporation, seizing upon a moment of national crisis to promote our brand, and preaching through the company megaphone."

The backlash far overshadowed the actual rollout of the discussion guide, and baristas were told they did not have to write "Race Together" on cups. Schultz said that in retrospect, it seemed "obvious" that having baristas broach the topic of race was very different from holding internal forums.

"When we polled our store partners, many aired their displeasure, calling the effort divisive, embarrassing, and poorly explained," Schultz wrote. "It's true the execution was sloppy, not properly sequenced, and too swift, no question." Advertisement

"The truth is that I threw Starbucks onto the third rail of society in a way that put an unfair burden on baristas and store managers," Schultz said. "These discussions needed to be had, but not in the way we had them."

'Go back to being ratioed on Twitter'

Schultz has thrown himself on the third rail of society once again this week, with the announcement that he is "seriously considering" running for president as an independent. The former Starbucks CEO has pledged to keep his potential campaign separate from Starbucks, but it is clear that the "Race Together" incident has deeply impacted his approach to politics.

Read more: Democrats are begging Howard Schultz not to run for office - and threatening a Starbucks boycott if he doesAdvertisement

Schultz asserts that he has learned from the incident. In "From the Ground Up," he writes that the failed "Race Together" campaign helped shape the company's measured and inward-facing response to the arrests of two black men at a Starbucks location in Philadelphia in 2018.

However, with his potential plan to run in 2020, Schultz is once again facing backlash and accusations of being tone-deaf. On Monday evening, a protester interrupted an event to promote "From the Ground Up," calling Schultz an "egotistical billionaire" whose presidency could help reelect President Donald Trump.

"Go back to getting ratioed on Twitter," the protester yelled. "Go back to Davos with the other billionaire elite who think they know how to run the world."Advertisement

Still, Schultz seems to have adapted to online controversy since "Race Together." After waves of backlash following his presidential announcement, Schultz told the news website Axios he was "not considering this to win the Twitter primary."

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