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Starbucks Baristas Encouraged To Write 'Race Together' On Cups To Spark Dialogue On Race Relations With Customers

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Starbucks is joining the national conversation about race in the latest sign that corporations are trying to tie their brands to big social issues.

The coffee chain known for its Frappuccinos elaborated on the plans at its annual shareholder meeting Wednesday in Seattle.

The chairman of the company, Howard Schultz, said after having open forums with employees across the country and hearing their personal stories, he felt Starbucks needed to get involved.

"We can't continue to talk about racial injustice as something that doesn't affect us," he said.

Starbucks Steps Into Conversation About Race

Already, workers at its U.S. stores have been told to write "Race Together'' on cups to begin a dialogue with customers about race relations, 1010 WINS' John Montone reported.

Reaction among customers and workers at the Starbucks in Times Square was mixed.

"I like the idea," customer Rudolph said.

"That's pretty heavy for morning coffee talk," said customer Dustin.

Pedro, a regular at the location, said he and Leo the barista chat all the time, but not about social issues.

"We talk about motorcycles, we talk about other things we can't talk about on the mic," he said.

Lexi, a barista, said she thinks writing "Race Together" on cups is "a great idea," but she likes to keep it "short and simple" when engaging customers in conversation.

"I wouldn't go as far as talking about something like that to customers, I don't know what they might feel," she said.

When Montone approached a barista to begin a dialogue she responded, "I'm actually working right now, OK, so I'm sorry about that, no comment."

The company also plans to start publishing "conversation guides'' on the topic.

The decision has sparked a backlash on social media, with people saying it's opportunistic for a coffee chain to try and inject itself into such an important issue.

The decision comes as corporate executives say customers are drawn to companies that project some sort of feel-good image or embrace positions on social causes.

At the annual meeting for Yum Brands Inc., the company that owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, CEO Greg Creed said in December that fast-food chains must to evolve from being perceived as "impersonal and industrial'' to being able to "demonstrate that we do care.''

Laura Ries, a branding consultant based in Atlanta, said that addressing big important, issues of the day has also become a way for companies to make themselves a part of the conversation. Otherwise, nobody is sitting around on Twitter discussing brands, she said.

Dove soap has generated widespread praise for its campaign celebrating "Real Beauty'' by featuring women who don't look like the typical models. Always, which makes products for women, also got praise for an ad that ran during the Super Bowl seeking to empower young girls. But those were messages that had ties to the products; people don't associate their morning coffee with race.

"There's nothing wrong with talking about race relations,'' Ries said. "But is it something people naturally associate with Starbucks? It's not.''

During the annual meeting, Starbucks says one of its board members, Mellody Hobson, will deliver a speech called "Color Blind or Color Brave.''

Inserting itself into national issues is not new territory for Starbucks Corp. In late 2012, the chain asked workers to write "Come together'' on cups to send a message to lawmakers about stalled budget negotiations.

And in 2013, the chain placed newspaper ads saying that firearms were not welcome in its cafes after they became the site of gun rallies. But the company stopped short of an outright ban.

Schultz said at the time that Starbucks was neither for nor against guns, underscoring that even a company that wants a voice in national conversations has to be careful about alienating customers.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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