The Braggart's Dilemma: Social Change and Where Brands Fit In

The reactions came quickly, and they were blunt: the company was suffering from a mid-life crisis, was a negative force in low-income urban communities, was patronizing, was elitist, was naive.
And that was just day one of Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign.
The multinational coffee company waded into the national debate over race relations in America with the well-intentioned program earlier this year, asking baristas to write the phrase “Race Together” on customers’ cups. The company hoped to spark introspective discussions that would echo into social media via an associated #RaceTogether hashtag.
Instead, the effort sparked mainly customer ridicule.
So what went wrong for Starbucks as they tried to promote what seemed to be universal social values of inclusion and tolerance?
It’s a principle marketing researchers call “the braggart’s dilemma” and Starbucks is far from the only company to suffer its effects. In fact, they say, it’s a real risk when companies engage in what’s commonly called “cause marketing,” or allying a brand with a social cause.
In a nutshell, researchers from the London Business School and the Wharton School found that promoting a corporation’s generosity could easily backfire. If the promotion seemed overblown or self-congratulatory, consumers were more likely to believe the company had “an impure motive for doing good deeds”- in other words, they were bragging for publicity.
Salon writer Joanna Rothkopf echoed these concerns in her own critique of the Starbucks campaign early in its launch.
“Half-assed efforts at creating the appearance of a corporate social conscience are suspect at best,” she wrote. “It’s even worse when the corporation, which is often a harbinger of gentrification, is so clearly seizing upon a moment of national tension, violence and anger to promote itself.”
Ask Starbucks executives, and they tell a different story.
“I cannot be a bystander” became Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s mantra during discussions leading up to the launch of the “Race Together” campaign, according to a Fast Company profile. By all accounts, Schultz and his executive team truly believed that the company’s strong customer base and likability would help them spark nationwide soul searching.
But in doing so, they missed red flags. According to executives, the company didn’t conduct market research or have contingency plans for a negative public reception.
And it’s not just Starbucks that has fallen into the goodwill trap. Corporations across the business world have seen a backlash against simplified messages that gloss over the complexity of issues.
In 2011, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich led a challenge against the Susan B. Komen Foundation, which partners with businesses from KFC to the NFL to use the foundation’s trademark pink color to promote breast cancer awareness. Ehrenreich, supported by breast cancer researchers, said the pink symbols had channeled interest and funding to awareness of the disease, not to the actual medical research that saved lives.
Yet in a time when social media campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter and #itgetsbetter have led to systemic change, some brands have figured out a more nuanced approach to promoting social good.
By looking over past examples, we can see a pattern of companies that have been successful in calling for change, and they’ve followed a few key principles:
When advocating for a cause, companies succeeded more often by choosing causes allied with their brand.
Ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s has never shied away from social causes, but took their advocacy to another level in 2012 with their “Get The Dough Out” campaign, which urged consumers to sign a petition to overturn the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which took away many spending limits for corporations during elections.
Ben and Jerry’s didn’t see any significant damage to their brand from this move. In fact, because the campaign was in keeping with the company’s internal values, consumers largely welcomed their efforts.
If their company did not have a reputation for advocacy, executives often picked universal causes that are largely apolitical.
In 2012, Home Depot committed to hiring more than 50,000 veterans within 5 years through their “Military Commitment” program, and ultimately fulfilled their promise two years earlier than expected. It was a win-win for the home renovation retailer: military consumers were motivated to shop there and stores were filled with a reliable labor force.
Many companies prepared a PR strategy, just in case.
Retail giant Target also took a political stance in 2014, publicly supporting marriage equality. This put their political footing on par with their internal practices, since the company also offered benefits to same-sex couples working in their stores.
To help protect themselves from a backlash, Target prepared a PR strategy that appealed to the spirit of “making every customer feel welcome.” The company released a statement that emphasized that they were standing behind this core value, noting, “We believe that everyone- all of our team members and our guests- deserve to be treated equally.” Highlighting the positive nature of the decision helped smooth over the divisiveness of the issue.
When confronting a bigger issue, some firms joined forces to challenge the status quo.
Multiple corporations, including NASCAR and Eli Lily, put their corporate weight into the fight over Indiana’s controversial legislation allowing businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers on religious grounds, promising to boycott the state if the law stayed on the books. Other corporations that had a presence in the state, such as Salesforce, publicly announced they were reconsidering doing business there. Indiana governor Mike Pence, under pressure from big corporate names across the country, signed an addendum to the legislation that closed that loophole.
Even corporations that haven’t followed these principles have been able to recover from well-intentioned missteps. And as Starbucks has discovered, customers are often forgiving.
Doing the right thing- even in a ham-handed way- doesn’t seem to have hurt the company long-term. According to Fast Company, revenue was up 18% when quarterly earnings were announced only one month after the roll-out of “Race Together.”
Customers, it seems, hadn’t abandoned their morning coffee.

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