What Your Brand Can Learn Right Now from the Starbucks Controversy

By now, most of you are probably aware of the disastrous event at Starbucks —  where two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia store for not making a purchase and refusing to leave the premises. The scene was captured in a video that went viral, and the backlash has been monstrous on social media and resulted in physical protests across the country. As Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Starbucks can surely relate. According to a YouGov BrandIndex score, the coffee giant has already dropped to its lowest consumer perception in years. Without a doubt, this is a historic public relations minefield. Starbucks has gone into damage control during these very sensitive, caustic times in the country.

Will any public image initiatives work or is the brand hopelessly crippled?

One way to read the tea leaves right in this situation is to analyze Starbuck’s initial reactions — relating them to effective PR best practices and comparing to how other companies have overcome a public crisis in the past.

STARBUCKS DID THEIR RESEARCH AND KNEW THEIR AUDIENCE

The company knew that these are not the days when a controversy comes and goes. The internet doesn’t forget a scandalous situation. Social media and easily-captured videos amplify events to intense levels of engagement, attitude, and action. The fact that the video caught white patrons angrily objecting the arrest was a visible testament to the company’s customer base. Starbucks is no Chick-fil-A, a more conservative brand that easily weathered its own storm years ago when its CEO publicly shared his controversial views on gay marriage.

As always, any publicity starts with solid market research to understand where a brand needs to pivot, regardless of the situation.

Thus, Starbucks needed to move quickly and address its base.

STARBUCKS OWNED IT, AND OWNED IT FAST

When the racially-charged news broke out, one of the narratives on the web was pointing the finger at the Philadelphia Police Department (who have recently gone on their own damage control campaign). Starbucks didn’t ride that potential wave, immediately taking responsibility for the debacle.

The incident happened on a Thursday, with the video beginning to crest by Friday. On Saturday the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks exploded across Twitter. By then, the company had provided a public apology while CEO Kevin R. Johnson released both a video and written statement of culpability and regret.

The company’s reaction is a huge contrast from last year’s infamous video-captured incident on a United Express flight, when a passenger was recorded being forcibly dragged out. As the video became viral and the media reaction swelled, United appeared to deflect any blame at first and only apologized several days later. This was a textbook illustration of being tone deaf, widely seen as crippling the airline’s public perception.

The same argument can be made with the recent feet-dragging of Facebook once it was found its data was being politically mined by third-party companies. Stay tuned for that one, though.

STARBUCKS IS MAKING CHANGES TO THE BRAND

Taking responsibility and apologizing are only the first steps in any public crisis. Transformative actions should follow (beyond whatever recompensation offered to maligned consumers).

Historically, the best example might be in 1982 when seven people died from poison-laced Tylenol. Apologies were not going to make much of a difference in this tragedy, even if the culprit had been found. Instead, the maker of Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, introduced a tamper-resistant packaging and $2.50-off coupons. Both solutions became a standard for the industry and an iconic case study on damage control.

Starbucks is obviously not going to add bigotry-erasing ingredients to their employee free coffees — but will be closing its stores on May 29 to conduct racial-bias education for employees (at the potential cost of $12 million).

This change is not in the product but the overall culture of the company.

As an expert in crisis management said, “This move goes far beyond the playbook of what a normal crisis response would be.”

STARBUCKS IS BEING DYNAMIC

A strategy in any business sense should never be static. Strictly following initial data and sticking to a template may lead to a disconnect.

Starbucks is being fluid with its crisis management. Johnson not only apologized in a video and written statement but has met with the two arrested individuals. This move has allowed Starbucks to own more of the dialogue instead of the media completely controlling the narrative.

Furthermore, the company continues to address the issue on its social media channels, as well as deal with collateral issues like fake coupons that offer free drinks to black customers. Sadly, regardless of the gravity of a situation, there are always elements wanting to make an extra buck or troll a population in the hope of having another sucker born in a minute.

Surely, Starbucks is learning from past nimble movements from other big brands — like JC Penny quickly addressing a Reddit, viral graphic that compared its teapots to Hitler or Southwest keeping its audiences well-informed right after an airplane made an emergency landing. Again, it’s about owning the dialogue as much as possible.

PR WIN OR CAUTIONARY TALE?

Starbucks seems to be doing everything right in the reputation management front, drawing deftly from past cases and innovating out of necessity. As marketer Viv Segal once said, “PR means telling the truth and working ethically – even when all the media want is headlines and all the public wants is scapegoats.”

I wouldn’t bet a pricey cup of coffee that it overcomes the crisis, though.

All times in history are unique, but these are singularly days where audiences live equally in both shifting physical and digital domains, all under an uncertain geopolitical and cultural atmosphere. In any public relations today, there are too many moving parts to be confident of how a brand will be affected.

In between now and the racial-bias education at the end of May, a lot can and will happen. In the end, the one thing that is certain is that this controversy will be a future case study, maybe or maybe not accompanied by a latte in a siren-printed cup.

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