Alignment in Branding: Learning from Starbucks’ Major Flop, “Race Together” Campaign

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Branding is both a science and an art. It is a science because it requires a careful systematic study on how it is approached based on facts and theories; it is also an art because it is geared to appeal to and touch human emotions.

In the science and art of branding, we have what we call alignment. Brand alignment is a discipline by which a brand holds its peculiar characteristics and main features in order to maintain its unique position in the market. Think about luxury brands, such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton. Notice how these luxury brands maintained their alignment with their market, pricing, approach, and designs throughout their existence.

Although the market is volatile and has required them to adapt, these brands have maintained alignment from their original brand proposition. In other words, the “feel” of the brand never changed. Notable business professor Henry Mintzberg defined this move as “strategy as a pattern,” wherein a brand is tailored in certain ways to make the public associate these characteristics into the brand and vice versa.

Think about Starbucks. Starbucks clearly uses “strategy as a pattern” wherein all characteristics of the products are similar and the niche market is similar. Having said so, this strategy creates a sort of a brand pattern or “culture.” When you think about Starbucks, the following may come into your mind: meeting place; third space, namely, a place to go between home and work; friends; and light conversations.

Deliberately or not, Starbucks can create a pattern by which the expectations of people have already been settled; a “culture” has been created. Therefore, creating something new is not one of the key focuses of a brand that has already created a culture. Its new brand propositions should always be aligned with the already-created pattern.

Going over or under board too quickly alienates the people, thereby creating a brand crisis. Think about Apple Inc., which “brilliantly” moved from one iPhone to the next by bearing the semblance of the previous. They know exactly that going against the created norm in their product may have unsavory backlash.

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Going back to Starbucks, just this year, they have exemplified a campaign that went overboard from the culture it created over the years. In other words, they created a move that went a little far from what is expected of them. All over the USA, baristas were encouraged to inscribe “race together” in the cups of Starbucks to encourage conversations among its customers. Perhaps, the brand managers thought, “Yeah! Starbucks is a place where conversations take place, why don’t we put up a campaign that encourages race equality?” You may have already heard about the result, but let me give you further an idea.

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Yes. It not only flopped but also caused itself a major brand crisis, for the lack of a better word: a public outrage!

What’s the proof? Just over 30,000 people signed up to the #DumpStarbucks campaign.

Clearly, Starbucks went overboard by touching a topic that establishments in the food and beverage industry wouldn’t wish to be a part of. People recognize that Starbucks provide random compliments, cheery greetings, and clean service, and that’s just about it. People might have thought “Why in the world would a coffee shop encourage a talk about racism at all? It’s none of its business.” One could realize here that Starbucks created what we can call a brand crisis.

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What happened next was unprecedented. People investigated the top executives of Starbucks. Then, people commented on as to why all team members are white and none of them are “colored?” The vice president of the Global Communications of Starbucks had to deactivate his Twitter account. Professor Nader Tavassoli of London Business School noted this as “. . . so much for an open discussion!” in one of his lectures.

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Let me borrow a list of “What People Are Saying about Starbucks,” an article written by R. Hernandez.
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