Starbucks Moves Toward the Light While the NFL Goes to the Dark Side

This past week saw two iconic American brands react to racial injustice in strikingly different ways. One chose transparency, shining a light on the issue, accepting responsibility for its actions and putting its money where its mouth was. The other did its level best to sweep its dirt under the rug.

Both companies’ reactions provide vivid illustrations of why one is firmly on the path to irrelevance and decline, and the other will continue to flourish.

Starbucks, America’s “Third Place” between home and work, providers of private spaces that serve as public neighborhood hubs and hangouts, a place where the concept of community is as important as the coffee itself, will be closed for business this afternoon.

You’ll have to look elsewhere for your after-lunch caffeine buzz or your Wi-Fi connection today, as Starbucks is closing all of its 8,000 U.S. units. Their 175,000 employees will be participating in a mandatory educational program “designed to address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, prevent discrimination and ensure everyone inside a Starbucks store feels safe and welcome,” according to a company statement.

This, of course, is in response to the infamous April incident where an employee called the police and had two black men arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for the crime of being in the store while black and not buying a cup of coffee. (They never got the chance, as they were waiting for a third man to arrive to start a business meeting.)

Cynics are calling this a “knee-jerk response” to mitigate bad press. They state, correctly, that a few hours of training aren’t nearly enough to change imbedded beliefs and behaviors. However, this is not a one-time, over and done with event. It’s the beginning of an on-going program to overcome implicit (and explicit) racial bias. If you doubt the company’s sincerity, consider the cost of closing 8,000 stores, likely in the tens of millions of dollars or more, and the credentials of the people with whom they have partnered in this effort.

“The curriculum will be developed with guidance from several national and local experts confronting racial bias, including Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund;  Heather McGhee, president of Demos; former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; and Jonathan Greenblatt, ceo of the Anti-Defamation League. Starbucks will involve these experts in monitoring and reviewing the effectiveness of the measures we undertake.”

Also in the news this week was the National Football League, announcing that the any player who kneels during the Star Spangled Banner will be fined.

In an eloquent statement to the press, NFL Commissioner Roger Godell said that:

“All 32 clubs want to make sure that during the moment of the anthem and the flag, that that is a very important moment for a lot of us as a league, as clubs and [for] our country, and it’s a moment we want to make sure is done in a respectful fashion.”

A separate statement issued by the league said: “It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.”

Of course, this perception cited by the NFL, perpetuated by the unilateral actions of the owners following President Trump’s lead, is entirely of their own creation. Colin Kaepernick and all the other players who took a knee during the National Anthem made it abundantly clear that their gesture – always intended to be respectful – had nothing to do with the flag, the troops or meant to be “unpatriotic” in any sense.

This was a form of protest, a sacred American right and tradition rooted in the founding of our country and its constitution, targeted against racism and police brutality. And as protests go, this one was as “polite” and “respectful” as they get. No laws were broken, no buildings were stormed, no violence occurred, no ships were illegally boarded to for the purpose of throwing their cargo into the Boston Harbor.

The fact that 70% of NFL players are black, and that the player’s union was not consulted in making this decision, makes the league’s policy particularly egregious. The argument that “politics has no place in sports” (“Shut up and dribble” was the sage advice given to none other than Lebron James by Fox News personality Laura Ingraham) is ludicrous.

The NFL and Major League Baseball both wrap themselves in the flag to build their brands. Were ballplayers wearing their camo uniforms out of a sense of patriotism this weekend, or was it strategy to sell more merch? The NFL embraces “patriotic” and martial themes in its rhetoric, communications, pre-game flyovers and the like in order to build its “toughness” credentials. The league and its broadcast networks also take great pains to create engaging “battle” narratives to build viewership and sell ads.

As for the Anthem, it was only in 2009 that the league started having teams come out of the locker room to stand, hand over hearts, in order to create an appealing tableau for the television audience. This was pure theater, not patriotism.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But you can’t have it both ways.

I am deeply disappointed as a citizen by the NFL’s misguided business strategy, and incredulous as a marketer. Just as the league couldn’t bury the story of how its players suffered and sometimes died from football related brain injuries, the kneeling story won’t go away either. The league is in crisis for many reasons, but only addressing those issues directly and transparently – in the Starbucks mode – will help them survive.

The great irony is the huge marketing opportunity the league is missing. As I wrote last October, the NFL could have tackled the situation (pun intended) authentically and proactively. Imagine this:

“We feel the pain of our players. We support them, their families and their communities. To that end, in conjunction with the player’s union, police departments all over the country, prominent voices on race and social justice, and our sponsors, we are establishing The NFL Foundation for Equality and Social Change. To that end, the league and our owners are dedicating, $70 million, or about 0.5% of our total revenue for the 2018-2019 season, to endow this foundation, which will provide ongoing efforts to foster equality trough educational programs, scholarships and research.”

In an age where corporate responsibility plays an ever-growing role in brand choice, it’s naïve to think brands can compartmentalize business and politics. Being on the right side of issues, in a public and transparent way, as the NFL will learn, is a key component of brand health.

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