Just Before Closing Stores for Racial-Sensitivity Training, Starbucks’ Reputation Hit a 10-Year Low

Starbucks's brand perception continues to struggle

Days after closing their stores for racial sensitivity training, Starbucks's workplace reputation is sinking to new lows Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Starbucks could use a jolt.

The caffeine empire has received a flurry of bad press in recent weeks, and its workplace reputation just hit a 10-year-low, according to a new survey from YouGov’s BrandIndex.

The survey results come after two black men were arrested on April 12 at a Philadelphia Starbucks after sitting in the coffee shop waiting for a business associate. Employees at the store called the police after the men asked to use the bathroom without making a purchase. A video of the men being handcuffed and removed from the Starbucks by police officers went viral. In the wake of that incident, Starbucks locations across the country shut their doors on the afternoon of May 29 for “racial sensitivity training.”

YouGov’s BrandIndex surveys 4,800 people each weekday and defines workplace reputation as the positive or negative feelings a person gets when asked if they’d want to be associated with a company.

In the weeks following the arrests, the brand’s purchase consideration (a metric concerning opportunity for sales revenue) has also been sitting at lower-than-usual levels. The buzz around Starbucks—what people are saying about it—took a nosedive after the arrests but has made its way back up slightly, though nowhere near the levels it was at before. Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov Data Products, said the results are “a tough message for a company that’s well-known for its employee benefits and culture.”

Chris Giglio, who runs HL Strategic Solutions, HL Group’s crisis communications division, explained that the coming weeks will prove to be a test of sorts for Starbucks.

“They have to show that they’re constantly listening and learning,” said Giglio. “They can’t let people think that they’ve done these things, and now they’re done.”

And if Starbucks effectively works to change their business and recover their brand perception, Giglio said the company could grow to an even better position than they were in before.

“This is very much a critical time for them. But there’s a possibility they could emerge from this stronger,” he said. “Not only puts it back where it was, but makes it more in tune with where the brand is today.”

Starbucks has been taking action since the incident, most notably with the racial-sensitivity training. But still, the coffee giant clearly has yet to recover from the incident, which went viral and made headlines for weeks after the fact.

Since then, Starbucks has been effusive in its apologies. In the days following the arrests, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson flew to Philadelphia to personally apologize to the men. Executive chairman Howard Schultz called what happened “reprehensible” during an appearance on CBS This Morning in April.

“I’m embarrassed, ashamed. I think what occurred was reprehensible at every single level,” Schultz said. “I think I take it very personally as everyone in our company does and we’re committed to making it right.”

Giglio believes the changes the company has been trying to make since the arrests are only a first step, and that real change will require not just focusing on where the company is now, but where it will be in a year or two as well.

“I don’t think that anyone would doubt that they are at least trying to do the right thing,” he said. “Starbucks needs to keep embracing the issue and keep learning from everything that they’ve done, and change course if needed.”

Marzilli said there’s been a bit of movement thanks to the training.

Our numbers suggest that the antibias training last week helped Starbucks’ reputation and buzz scores,” he said. “The brand’s metrics dropped significantly after the mid-April incident, but since Starbucks closed its stores for antibias training on May 29, consumer perception seems to be improving.”

Still, it will clearly take more than apologies for the chain, long known as a socially conscious company. Starbucks has previously committed to hiring thousands of refugees and offers premier benefits for its employees, including breaks on college tuition. The coming weeks are an opportunity for Starbucks to prove it can evolve and live up to that reputation.

“If the public thinks that they stepped up, did the right thing and learned from it, and ended up being a better brand, and their employees believe that, they will be better off,” he said. “If the public believes the opposite, they won’t be.”

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.