Posts Tagged 'brand messaging'

Can Starbucks Recover?

It is indeed ironic that Starbucks finds itself the target of complaints about racism, insensitivity and customer service. For much of its history, Starbucks has been a standard-bearer of progressive corporate leadership on a variety of social, cultural, racial, customer service and corporate social responsibility issues—which only goes to point out that no company can afford to overlook the quality of its ongoing relationships with its customers and, in addition, the power of social media to generate a communications crisis within minutes.

First, let us admit that we’ve previously lauded Starbucks on several occasions for forward-thinking, courageous, and even bold stands on a variety of quality-of-life and social justice issues. From the much-despised Race Together initiative to progressive stands on employee relations, equity in leadership and pay, and establishing and setting a high bar on a range of everyday communications issues (digital and social media marketing), we like Starbucks and think they’ve set an example worthy of many corporations taking note. Nonetheless, we’ve also recently become disenchanted with some changes ushered in by Starbucks, which begin to raise the question we asked in some of our earlier social media posts re: Philadelphia, and even before: Has success spoiled Starbucks and caused it to take too much for granted, when it comes to its customers? And will one day of racial sensitivity and customer service training (designated corporate-wide for May 29) change that scenario? Bottom line, apparently had Starbucks started to believe—like too many banks and investment firms before it—that it’s too big to fail, or even immune to a stumble. The past few weeks should’ve changed that picture substantially.

So where has Starbucks gone wrong? Like many entrepreneurs, we consider ourselves aficionados on this, as we spend a lot of time in Starbucks or running to Starbucks while conducting business. Here are a few problems we’ve noted of late. …

Disappearing Chairs

As we’ve noted in one of our social posts, in the past months, chairs have been noticeably missing from Starbucks changing business model. One of the things that has made Starbucks not only convenient, but indispensable in our informal, shared-workspace economy, is that Starbucks is, generally, an inviting place to conduct business. It’s convenient (practically omnipresent), more invigorating than the average office, and a good place to mix informal mingling with business function. I’ve seen everything from small-group meetings, to tele-conferencing, to actual business social activities held in Starbucks sites.

Losing A Neighborhood Gathering Place

As one journalist recently described it: “Starbucks, a brand that has positioned itself in our national consciousness as not just a restaurant chain or retail operation, but as a ‘third place’ meetup spot for the community.” So, this sudden removal of seats from a growing number of stores (across the Chicago area at least), is something of a slap in the face to loyal customers—business and social users alike–who Starbucks encourages to make repeat visits.

So, perhaps the issue facing Starbucks in the Philadelphia case is about more than race, although its apparent that ugly racism may have strongly influenced the situation. Could it be that Starbucks was already losing touch with the people and the community values that made it a global juggernaut?

Perhaps it was too much to ask that a major corporation combine all the amenities of the local neighborhood café, bookstore, community center and local hotspot. But Starbucks offered an implicit promise to be all that, giving it a special local appeal. And it was diverse, in staff and clientele. But those mom and pop coffee shops and cafes that many of us abandoned for Starbucks are probably now muttering a major “I told you so!”

Can Starbucks pull it all together quickly to stay of damage caused by that shop in Philadelphia and other bad moves. Time will tell. The company has at least announced it’s closing the shop for one day in May to talk about race, and we hope many other customer service issues. Many of us will wait and see, before we make our way to a final exit.

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The Perennial PR Problem: Tone-Deaf Companies, Tone-Deaf Messages, Tone-Deaf Workplaces

The long-standing, and often contentious issue of diversity in the media industries (news, PR, advertising, social media, etc.), was raised anew in a recent spate of events. Of course, diversity in these industries, as well as in tech, has long been an issue close to our hearts. We’ve blogged about it, advocated for it, and been adherents to the practices and principles of diversity for a very long time. Yet, as we are frequently reminded, many of our major companies still apparently don’t subscribe to the importance diversity in key parts of the workplace. A few recent examples come to mind … (Mind you, while we do not know for certain that any of these examples are not the creation of “diverse” work teams, you’ll see why we have our suspicions when you examine the evidence.)

First, probably most spectacularly is the video commercial released by Pepsi, quickly tagged the #PepsiKendall ad, featuring top model Kendall Jenner. As you’ve probably already seen or heard, the commercial, although pulled from circulation almost immediately after its release, featured Jenner, abandoning her high-fashion photo shoot and blonde wig to join a passing multiracial, multicultural street protest conveniently passing by. After some lingering glances at an attractive male within the protest group, she quickly circulates through the crowd joining the front lines, where she ostensibly leads the group until they meet up with a line of waiting police officers who, as Stephen Colbert has described them, look every bit “the world’s least intimidating police force.” Bottom line, Kendall hands the cop a Pepsi, they both smile, he looks at the other cops down the line, then drinks the Pepsi while Kendall leads the other protesters in a rousing round of cheers. We’ll stop the action here, but we hope you see the problem. The Internet certainly did.

Within hours, a storm of protests, mocking and mimicry of the ad broke out on social media, causing such a furor that Pepsi pulled the ad and issued an apology—to Kendall Jenner, that is, for “placing her in that position.” For the rest of humanity who were offended and weren’t a paid part of the ad, Pepsi issued this rationalization:

This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey,” they said in a statement.”

And regarding the creative development of the ad, they added this:

The creative showcases a moment of unity, and a point where multiple storylines converge in the final advert. It depicts various groups of people embracing a spontaneous moment, and showcasing Pepsi’s brand rallying cry to ‘Live For Now,’ in an exploration of what that truly means to live life unbounded, unfiltered and uninhibited.”

Where do we begin to unpack what went wrong here? Let’s start by raising the question we first posted in a tweet immediately after we head of the furor:

For us, this ad immediately raised the question of diversity on the team who created it—not to mention the marketing and other pros who approved it. What is it they missed that the rest of the world found immediate outrage in? This, we think, is the saddest part of this debacle: that highly paid professionals in major corporations and professional services agencies couldn’t see the offensive nature of this ad.

Any team member schooled in media stereotypes and commercial (cultural) appropriation–which should be everyone involved in creative development as well as the marketing of brand images–could have advised Pepsi to steer clear of its approach, for the clear reason it appears to trivialize people’s struggles for social justice and human rights. Certainly, we think, most persons of color involved in the creative development and marketing of corporate and brand messages (but perhaps not all), should have foreseen the trouble with this ad; so, our guess is that none played any major role in the creation of the spot. So instead what we got was among the worst demonstrations of what insular, self-perpetuating kinds of privileged and homogeneous teams produce for the rest of us. The ad looks good and paints a “pretty” multiethnic picture, but is completely devoid of any real sensitivity to the often life and death circumstances, struggles and ideologies that drive people to protest in the streets.

The lack of authenticity in any part of the #PepsiKendall ad is antithetical to the very democratization of media and media messages that social media has been so effective in producing in the US and globally.”

Yet, sadly, this misguided advertisement doesn’t stand alone. Not long before, but to much less, but surely well-deserved furor, the Switzerland-based company Nivea quickly dropped its ad touting “White is Purity” for its skin creams. We’ll just let the Internet make our case from here …

And, ironically, the backdrop for all this uproar over media messages and images was the very real-life ongoing saga at Fox News regarding sexual harassment and gender discrimination against its female employees.

Finally, as if to show that no contemporary industry is immune to calculated colorblindness and insensitivity, the fashion industry produced this outrage a short time ago. It’s what we called some of the worst kind of commercial/cultural appropriation, as this remnant from international slavery–a face mask forced upon workers in the fields to prevent them from eating corn and other crops they were being forced to harvest—was re-created as “fashion” for adornment on the runway.

One of the PR lessons that all these corporate affronts, miscalculations and misjudgments tells us is that despite the current “zeitgeist” toward diversity, human rights and social justice that many companies are clamoring to tap into, too many of these companies remain bastions of privilege, homogeneity (in regard to race), and social and cultural isolation. One thing many public relations professionals have understood for decades is that sometimes the greatest challenge or threat to good PR isn’t external, it can be internal, exemplified by tone-deaf companies, tone-deaf work environments, and tone-deaf messages—often with toxic results.


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