On Sunday, Starbucks announced that part of its controversial #RaceTogether campaign would be coming to a close. Less than a week after the campaign started, the company said baristas would no longer be asked to write "Race Together" on customers' cups — an act that was supposed to help spark spontaneous conversations about racism before people even had their morning coffee.
It was not the end of the campaign altogether, the company made clear. In his memo Sunday to employees, CEO Howard Schultz said he plans to co-produce more special sections with USA Today on the issue, expand the number of cafes in urban communities, and commit to hiring 10,000 disadvantaged youth over the next three years.
It also was not a reactive about-face: A company spokeswoman said in an email that the initial cup-writing campaign "was always intended to spark the conversation." She also provided an internal company document shared with employees last Monday that showed the cup campaign was always only intended to run until March 22.
But that point was at times buried in the media coverage following the cup campaign's quick end. Headlines blared "Starbucks says oops" and "Starbucks scraps" its initiative. While some defended the campaign as well intentioned and an example of corporate leadership, others were hardly so polite — panning it as ill-conceived, misguided and tone deaf.
The Economist's assessment was even more blunt: "#Fail."
What will be more interesting to watch, however, is whether lingering criticism of it scares other companies off. After all, corporations are increasingly speaking out about social issues, whether through explicit marketing campaigns, company policy announcements or simply the words of their CEOs. And as the frequency has grown, so (often) has the success. Consumers are proving more and more likely to buy from companies that share their values and actively voice their concerns.
Dove's "Real Beauty" ads have garnered plenty of praise for tackling the issue of body image. Apple's Tim Cook has spoken out strongly about race, inequality and LGBT issues. And Starbucks has long put itself at the center of several national issues, from gun control to political dysfunction to health care, with far less controversy.
Yet some worry the vitriolic response to Starbucks' most recent initiative could discourage companies from talking about race entirely. Even Dream Corps president Van Jones wrote in a CNN column (where he notes, moreover, that Starbucks board member Mellody Hobson is a personal friend), "I fear that no major corporation will even try to talk about race again—for maybe 10 or 20 years."
That kind of extreme outcome seems unlikely. Still, it wouldn't be surprising if the response to Starbucks' initiative makes other corporate leaders hold back on the issue. Companies may take a different approach, focusing most on progressive hiring actions, for example, or investments made in partnerships with African-American organizations for youth. And whatever they do, they're likely to take it up with less fanfare.