When you visit Starbucks.com, the “Responsibility” tab is front and center. Click on it, and you’ll find nearly 30 different links under headings such as “Community,” “Environment” and “Ethical Sourcing,” along with a 19-page Global Responsibility Report for those who would take an even deeper dive into the company’s practices. Starbucks, in other words, makes a real effort to walk the talk of responsibility. And yet, when the company launched its #RaceTogether campaign back in March, the mockery was swift and merciless. The plan, as we all remember, was for baristas to write “Race Together” on customers’ cups in an effort to spark dialog about race in America.
Unfortunately for Starbucks, #RaceTogether is now synonymous with #PRdebacles.
So what happened? How could Starbucks have gotten it so wrong? In the age of the self-aware consumer, brands have no choice but to engage with their customers on the issues of our time, right?
The risk lies in losing track of the all-important difference between integrity, an objective state of being, and the far-more-subjective sphere of morality/ethics. When brands focus on achieving the integrity of their purpose (making whole on their promise), these campaigns tend to get results. When brands stray into opportunistic preaching or moralizing, the response from consumers is often “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Harvard University business professor Michael Jensen puts it best when he defines integrity as “a state or condition of being whole, complete, unbroken.” Morality and ethics, by contrast, are normative, subjective concepts: What is moral or ethical to someone in the Bay Area might be immoral or unethical to somebody in the Bible Belt. By contrast, integrity—or the lack of it—is objective and easy to spot. It either exists or it doesn’t. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, routinely talks about the high quality of its grass-fed beef and humanely raised pork. If the chain were to be busted for lying about its food sources, we would all see this as a breach of integrity, regardless of what we happened to think about the morality or ethics of eating conventional beef, pork and poultry. (And in fact, Chipotle’s integrity is now under fire: The chain faces a class action alleging it has been deceptive about being GMO-free.)
Therefore, with regard to campaigns prioritize and highlight the great things your brand does to make good on its promises. Resist the impulse to try to boost your brand’s cachet by taking stances you believe will be popular or politically correct—especially if those stances are largely unrelated to your core purpose.
In the age of the self-aware consumer, complying with the radically varying moral demands of diverse audiences is impossible. However, any company can look within and focus sincerely on making sure its brands have integrity. These internally consistent, honest stories then become building blocks for campaigns that will boost customer loyalty over the long term—and keep you out of #PRdebacles on Twitter.
Originally published in CommPRO.biz.
Photo courtesy of finerminds.com.