An object lesson in damaging your personal brand

Tai Tran, Social Media Marketing Manager at Cal-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, posted a perceptive article about why Starbucks’ #RaceTogether campaign failed.

Starbucks cups with #RaceTogether written on them

Image source: LinkedIn (uncredited)

You probably heard about #RaceTogether. Designed to stimulate conversation about race relations, instead it touched off a firestorm of social-media derision directed at Starbucks.

Tran says, and I agree, that three factors led to the campaign’s going awry:

  1. Poor brand alignment: Does it make sense for Starbucks, a brand many people associate with high prices and gentrification, to lead a discussion about race relations?
  2. Lack of authenticity: Starbucks asked their employees (“partners”) to do the heavy lifting for #RaceTogether. While they’re expert at making coffee drinks, these “partners” have no special training for facilitating a knowledegeable, nuanced conversation about race. The result? #RaceTogether looked like a simple publicity stunt.
  3. No plan for handling blowback: Soon after word got out about #RaceTogether, customers and others began complaining on social media. Starbucks had no answers. Soon, the Twitter account for Starbucks Senior VP of Global Communications was taken down. It’s hard to believe Starbucks didn’t at least consider the possibility of negative feedback, and that they didn’t have a contingency plan for handling it.

The bottom line: despite good intentions, #RaceTogether damaged Starbucks’ brand — damage that easily could’ve been prevented.

As individuals, we can learn a lesson from #RaceTogether. Everything we publish on the web — an article, a blog post, a comment, a Facebook update — has an effect on our personal brands. Most times the effect is innocuous, but sometimes the effect — for good or ill — is huge. It’s hard to predict when those times will be.

The best policy is to start with a clear vision of your personal brand and what you want it to be. Then publish only those things that fit that vision. Had Starbucks done this, they either would’ve found a better way to achieve their hoped-for outcome or they would’ve realized it was nothing they had any business doing.

What lessons do you see in the #RaceTogether experience?

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3 thoughts on “An object lesson in damaging your personal brand

  1. Larry Kunz Post author

    Thanks, Vinish, for posting the link to Carol Lynn Rivera’s article. Her view is that the #RaceTogether campaign didn’t fail, because it did get us talking. She defends Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for starting the conversation — not the first time he’s brought attention to an important social issue — and she says, basically, shame on all of us for making the conversation about the campaign rather than about race.

    It’s an interesting take, but I still think Starbucks stumbled. They asked their front-line employees to do something that flies in the face of a well-established employee-customer relationship. They didn’t back it with a strong social-media component. In the end it did seem half-hearted and inauthentic. Will Starbucks learn from the experience? I’m betting they will.

    Reply
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