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Starbucks takes a risk with 'bold' Race Together campaign, brand experts say

Starbucks' Race Together campaign aims to encourage conversations about race relations in America

Starbucks wants its baristas to join the conversation about race relations in America.

A new campaign called Race Together that launched at all company stores this week is intended to encourage discussions about race between Starbucks employees and customers.

Baristas are encouraged, but not required, to write the words Race Together on cups to engage customers in conversation about the issues, according to a statement from Starbucks. If customers don't want a Race Together cup, they can ask for a plain cup.

The initiative stemmed from a forum in December at company headquarters in Seattle, where employees were encouraged to discuss their thoughts on racial tension in the United States after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.

"If we just keep going about our business and ringing the Starbucks register every day and ignoring this, then I think we are, in a sense, part of the problem," Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz told employees at the videotaped December meeting.

"I don't feel, candidly, that staying quiet as a company and staying quiet in this building is who we are and who I want us to be," he said. "We're going to find a way to thread our values and our sense of humanity into the national conversation, and perhaps we can have some effect on the national discourse."

The Seattle forum was followed by others in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York and Chicago -- discussions that were attended by more than 2,000 employees, according to the company.

"Given their willingness to discuss race relations, many partners wanted to begin conversations with their customers too," the company said in a statement.

This is not Starbucks’ first foray into social responsibility initiatives. In 2013, Schultz asked that customers not bring guns into his stores, two days after a Navy contractor killed 12 people in a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. In June, the company said employees could take online classes at Arizona State University for free.

But the Race Together campaign is different, said Scott Ehlert, a strategist for global branding firm Siegel+Gale.

“This is a bold move on the part of Starbucks, and it’s one that’s not without potential fallout,” he said. “But I think it’s one that is true to their brand.”

The campaign has drawn sharp criticism online, with many commenting on the company's lack of hiring diversity and the ability of employees to engage in these discussions, among other issues.

In a video to employees, Schultz said he hoped the campaign would persuade other businesses to join with Starbucks.

Other brands will likely wait to see the effects of the initiative before joining, said Roy De Young, senior vice president of creative services at PM Digital.

“They’re going to let Starbucks be the proving ground first,” he said. “I think a lot of mainstream brands are going to stay away from this.”

Shares of Starbucks were up 34 cents, or 0.36%, to $94.39 at the close of trading.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

1:48 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional context and comment from analysts.

This story was first published at 10:51 a.m.

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