In response to the racially-charged tragedies that have unfolded throughout the United States, Starbucks launched ‘Race Together’ – a campaign designed to spark conversation about race. Nationwide, baristas voluntarily wrote ‘Race Together’ on cups. The hashtag #RaceTogther was introduced through social media outlets.

While the campaign did indeed garner a lot of attention, it wasn’t in the manner Starbucks wanted. The overall public impression of the campaign was that it was a “naked marketing ploy,” reported NPR. Even those who recognized the well-intentioned nature of Starbucks’ attempt, noted that the campaign was poorly executed.

For marketers and business owners the campaign raised quite a few interesting and very important topics. We’d like to explore a few.

Consider the Risk

Prior to any major campaign it’s important to consider the risk. While you may know full well what point you’re trying to get across, that’s not always the message your audience will receive. Ask yourself, what other meanings could this campaign have? Huggies’ “Dad Test” campaign from 2012 was designed to get a quick laugh and display how easy-to-use their diapers really are. The result was a little different as viewers were outraged. The ads depicted fathers as deficient and indifferent caregivers. Huggies quickly pulled the campaign.

Consider the campaign from a distance(s). Esurance failed to do so and their billboard, “cover your home in a click,” took on a phallic spin from a distance.

Beware of the pre-existing meaning. Many hashtags and slogans have already been used. There’s a message and culture attached to them. DiGiorno’s marketing team thought they were making a witty comment when they used the hashtag #whyistayed. Unfortunately, they quickly found out that they were joining a conversation about domestic abuse.

Take Stock of Your Cred

Think of the relationships in your life – your mom, best friend, co-worker and new acquaintance. The closer you are with an individual, the more trust that exists between you. This level of trust determines how far you can push the envelope. The same is true with a brand. The better your customer approval rating, the more cred you have saved up.

Prior to the ‘Race Together’ campaign, Starbucks had a lot of customer approval “in the bank.” Despite the rather large backlash, they still do. This allowed them to take a bigger risk than other companies might.

As you consider an edgy (aka potentially risky) marketing campaign, it’s important to consider how much cred you have. Do you have enough you’re willing to risk some?

Look at Successful Examples

As you think about your marketing campaign, it’s important to take stock of not only those who have failed, but those who have succeeded. For example, Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan is definitely edgy. Before it was launched in 1988, there was a serious amount of debate about whether or not it would be effective. More than two decades later, it’s still one of the most successful slogans being used.

However, campaigns don’t just take place on billboards, TV ads, and Starbucks cups. Sometimes they happen in more unlikely places. Sometimes they happen when no one expects or even really notices. Consider the recent expansion of Destiny, an online gaming platform. (The expansion is called House of Wolves.)

In many ways, this online gaming platform did more to break down race barriers in the first few days it was released than Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ campaign has done to date. A team game, it is a platform where often individuals of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and gender connect. Players have to work together and talk. The game provides a common ground that links individuals together - often without questions of team members’ backgrounds.

The Ultimate Lesson – Be Conscious

In the end, the most obvious lesson from Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ campaign is that you need to be conscious of what you’re trying to achieve and what could potentially go wrong.

Is it bad to take a risk? Absolutely not, especially if your heart is in the right place. You just need to be aware of the risk you’re taking.

Be also conscious that issues and prejudices still exist in many ways from gender to ethnicity - in cities and towns and even industries. Value the people around you and make strides where you have an opportunity. Sometimes simply listening to the people around you goes a long way to understanding where they’ve been and where they want to go. You’ll be surprised at the common ground you'll discover.