“Everyone’s a critic” is one of those phrases we all know.

Lessor known, but perhaps more accurate, is the epiphany from Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character “Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one”

If you want to see this reality, throw content into the feeding frenzy of the 1.3 billion users of Facebook. Or, if you’re particularly resilient and enjoy self-flagellation, venture into the uncharted territory of Reddit and sub-Reddits.

But should that stop brands and businesses from stepping into the fray?

Should the potential for backlash, ridicule and lambasting mean that you should soft-pedal on your company’s Purpose and Vision?

Howard Schultz, Founder and CEO of Starbucks, evidently doesn’t think so.

The organization’s recent #RaceTogether efforts to elevate the conversation around race and race relations in the USA has polarized customers and the press. The intensity of the backlash has forced the organization to stop certain elements – like barista’s writing #RaceTogether on your morning coffee and actively engaging caffeine-starved customers on the subject – to something on a microsite.

Starbucks certainly aren’t the first well-intentioned and Purposeful company to wade into these sensitive and polarizing issues.

Kenneth Cole

My absolute favourite fashion brand, and one that has not shied away from commentating on topical and controversial subjects. Albeit with a very wry sense of humour.


However their brand consistent advertising lead to an infamous tweet around the Arab Spring uprisings. That single tweet highlighted how quickly smart can become smartass and how attaching your brand to events as tumultuous and violent as Arab Spring isn’t a particularly great idea.


The original bad boy of marketing. Constantly making provocative and outrageous advertising to communicate their stance of key social issues. If you want to discuss the original attempt to raise the issue of race, look no further than their “Colours of Bennetton” advertising.


But when that topic moved to kissing priests, new-born babies, assassinated mob figures and death-bed photographs of Aids patients, it was clear that Bennetton had moved from Purpose through Provocative and all the way into Shock-value.


Shock-value is never an enduring or welcomed communications platform. Certainly not for an organization trying to regain relevance and bolster plummeting sales.


Another brand throwing themselves headlong into thorny societal issues. Almost a decade ago their advertising agency Ogilvy&Mather launched “Evolution” which became an online viral sensation and laid the foundation for a campaign that AdAge called the most influential of the 21st Century. No small feat.

By unapologetically taking on media stereotypes about what “real beauty” means, Dove artfully raised perceptions of their brand by tackling one of the most pervasive and universal issues facing over 50% of the world’s population. As the father of two daughters I give them kudos.

So what can be learnt from this spotty history?

Execution, Execution, Execution

Sounds pretty obvious but these initiatives all come down to execution. A mis-step or an unrealistic expectation of your staff – “please discuss deep thorny issues with people of another race before they have their morning coffee” – only sets you up for a torrent of social media backlash. Did Starbucks send all their employees for sensitivity training and counseling or did they hope the well-intentioned but awkward and fumbling efforts of their front-line staff would be shrugged off by the customers? (My question is rhetorical)

Scenario Planning

A precursor to the execution point but have you really exhausted your thinking around “What’s the worst thing that could happen and how will we react?” When the Starbucks person leading the communication task for #RaceTogether shuts down their Twitter account because of the volume and vitriol of tweets, it sounds awfully like they were ill-prepared.

Check Your Closet for Skeletons

Woman around the world regularly praise Dove for taking such a visible stance on woman’s rights. In the same breath they ask how parent company Unilever can apparently support teen-boy brand Axe, well known for its testosterone-fuelled, male sexual fetish advertising, with equal investment and passion. And sell skin-whitening beauty products to Asian customers.

There is genuinely nowhere to hide if you go this route. And the louder your proclamation, the more fervent the naysayers.

Expect the Trolls

Personally I was devastated when Coca-Cola’s #MakeItHappy efforts around making the Internet a better and safer place was brought down in less than a week by the (malicious and headline grabbing) efforts of Gawker magazine. Again, what might’ve been prevented by a rigorous scenario planning exercise that anticipated the vocal trolls hiding out in social media land?

Is It A Legitimate Position For Your Brand?

Is this effort a genuine alignment with an organization’s core beliefs, vision and Purpose? Or is this just more marketing fluff? There’s no denying Starbucks credentials behind purpose-driven efforts like Freetrade, employee wellness and profit-sharing programs and a slew of other fine, fine initiatives. But when Quartz magazine points out the lack of diversity in the Starbucks board of directors and their over-saturation in affluent white neighbourhoods, you have to ponder just how far your Purpose can stretch. If people can’t point to genuine, tangible artifacts within your company walls, expect the cry of “bullsh*t” to ring out loud and clear.

Let me be clear I commend Schultz’s efforts to run headlong into these issues. Heaven knows race is a festering issue in the USA today. But well-intentioned must also be well-managed if its to have the impact we all want.

As someone who adores Purpose-driven organizations, I tip my hat to Starbucks.

Perhaps, as a final acknowledgement, the famous words of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius

Remember a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic

Tags: , , , , , ,