Of Soviets and Starbucks

February 15th, 1990 was my father’s first day in America, and according to family-lore, the day he quit smoking. Two months ago I went home to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his arrival in the country. He made his way here during the waning years of the Soviet Union, leaving his home country of Ukraine for Austria and Italy, until he was finally granted permission to immigrate to the United States.

I’m always amazed at the admiration he has for this country, so in the spirit of his 25 year anniversary in the US, I asked my dad what word best represents his thoughts and emotions when thinking about America. In his noticeably Russian-accented English, he said, “inspirational.”

I was a bit struck after hearing that word. “Inspirational” is a nice soundbite, but more than anything it represents an abstract ideal. Don’t get me wrong—I know my dad meant it when he said it, and I admire him for it. But having come of age during one of the most polarizing periods in American politics, “inspirational” sounds like the hollow fluff you expect to hear from our politicians during election season.

Which brings me to my work in PR.

inspire

While interning at HB over the last few months, I’ve come to recognize that companies, particularly those catering to Millennials and consumers of technology, are increasingly promoting that abstract fluff over the reality on the ground. It’s the idea of the socially responsible but still profit-driven company adeptly navigating morality in the marketplace. Sometimes, the public will buy into a company’s social message. But the strategy isn’t foolproof. What starts out as a socially-conscious message could easily backfire. The recent PR debacle at Starbucks is a good example of this.

In March, the company implemented a new initiative, “Race Together,” where baristas would place stickers with those words on customers’ cups in hopes of jump starting a national conversation about race. In Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s head, this was a great idea, but it didn’t translate well with the American public, across the political divide of left and right. Starbucks was hammered by pundits and the average Joe for displaying poor judgement and naivete.

Uber, which promotes its societal contributions by stressing its outsized role in the sharing economy, was heavily criticized last November when Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber New York, decided to a boastfully tell a journalist,“I was tracking you,” as she pulled up to their meeting. Uber’s privacy policy prohibits contract drivers from tracking customers, but it’s widely available to employees at the corporate level. The breach of privacy resulted in harsh criticism and damaged Uber’s reputation among the public and government officials.

If I were a betting man, I’d expect more such PR disasters to proliferate among companies that cater to Millennials and other tech-savvy and socially-conscious groups. This is not to say that running a business responsibly is impossible. But large companies like Starbucks and Uber will have a difficult time managing their image if they continue testing the waters with what Americans believe to be ethically and socially responsible.

My dad might never learn how to order an Uber or a tall, nonfat latte with caramel drizzle from Starbucks, but I know he’s always looking to buy from companies that do good and inspire. It’s up to companies to either live up to the missions they set, or get out of the business of morality.

It’s the responsible thing to do.

Mower

About Mower Boston

Boston's Mower office is a full-service technology marketing, PR and branding agency. Our B2B stories illustrate projects and campaigns in a variety of markets and media that range from local impact in Boston and New England to global proportions.

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