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The Crisis Intelligence Blog

Starbucks’ Lesson: A Social Media Attack Can Arise When Least Expected

18 Jul

Starbucks found themselves in a little conundrum this week when they tweeted to their Argentina customers, apologizing for a temporary supply shortage, and therefore the temporary use of non-branded cups and sleeves – made in Argentina. Typically, this would have been a smart and well-received message from the coffee brand.  However, there are exceptions to every rule, and as it turned out, the comment was not well received by their Argentinian customers and fans.

It was instead taken as an insult to their nation – why should Starbucks be apologizing for using Argentinian-made supplies? As #pedimosdisculpas (#weapologize) trended on Twitter, people were expressing sarcasm with tweets wondering when Starbucks “will start apologizing for hiring local staff that speak Spanish”. Most definitely not the response that Starbucks had anticipated!

Although Starbucks was quick to respond to this outcry, the lesson here is that no matter how well we follow the “social media communications rules”, we can’t expect to please everybody, and little firestorms can be created quickly and without prior anticipation. Starbucks, feeling confident that they were doing the right thing, could not have anticipated that their Argentinian customers would be so offended by their attempt at an apology for their brand’s lack of better internal management.

Starbucks’ response

Starbucks took the correct steps with their initial tweet, and they continued to take the correct steps with their Facebook apology:

“We apologize for the post this morning – we understand your comments and clarify that the intention was to tell you that we are using different than the usual supplies, temporarily in some stores. This is due to a breakdown of stock by an internal planning error.

We are working to continue providing the best for our fans.

We like to be transparent with our community and share each of our updates – whether permanent or temporary.” (translated by Bing)

A lesson in the making

When it comes to communicating with your customers and fans on social media, truth, transparency and timely updates are always the best strategies to take. You have to remember that you can never please everyone, and social media attacks may arise when least expected. That’s why a crisis communications plan is always in your best interest – to be developed before you find yourself faced with such an incident. But when truth, transparency and timely updates are a part of your social media policy, you can always rest assured that you’re on the right path.

How do you feel about this particular incident? Would you have taken insult to Starbucks’ tweet, and what do you think of the way they chose to handle the situation? Share your thoughts with me below!

19 Responses to “Starbucks’ Lesson: A Social Media Attack Can Arise When Least Expected”

  1. Ike July 18, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    This is a tough one, and I don't know that we know the whole story here. Spanish is a tricky language in international settings, because there are local variations that make big differences.

    My hunch here is that the Tweet in question may have been phrased "correctly" in Spanish, but *not* so in Argentinian Spanish. Given the miscommunication here surrounding the emphasis of the object of apology, that might be the case here.

    I'd dig a little deeper on this one, Melissa. Because there are two possible root causes of this Tempest in a Grande Mug. If the lesson is about cultural sensitivity, that's an entirely different fix than a stark reminder that syntax matters. And in a case study, learning the wrong lesson can be instructive, yet not entirely helpful.

    • Melissa Agnes July 18, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Hi Ike, that's an excellent point!

      I'm not fluent (or anything close) in Spanish, but I did take a look at the Google Translation, as well as different articles posted about the subject, as well as Starbucks' pages of course. The original Tweet was:

      "Pedimos disculpas, ya que debido a un quiebre temporario de stock, en algunas tiendas se están utilizando vasos y mangas nacionales. Saludos"

      Perhaps you are more familiar with the dialect?

      Either way, if it is an issue of culture, that's a different but excellent point – and one that Starbucks, being a global brand, should be more aware of.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Ike, I'll keep my eyes open and adjust the post if necessary.

      • Ike July 18, 2012 at 10:42 am #

        You're most welcome! You've done a great job with the blog.

        I would recommend avoiding Google Translate on this one. What you'll get is Spanish. Plain, vanilla Spanish.

        If you want the nuance, find an Argentinian and ask. And while that would go for just about every other Spanish-speaking nation, Argentina is a bit more remote and culturally distinct. (and very particular in the quality of their beef.)

        • Melissa Agnes July 18, 2012 at 11:02 am #

          Particularity in beef quality is not such a bad thing ;)

          I'll definitely do that – seek out an Argentinian, that is! You've made me realize how little I know of the Argentinian culture – something to educate myself on!

          Thanks for the great convo and the nice compliment to my blog! Im glad you enjoy it.

          I'll keep you posted on what I learn.

          Have a great day, Ike!

  2. Gisele Navarro Mende July 18, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    We've been discussing this on Twitter but I felt that I had to leave my input in here anyways. As an Argentinian I can assure you that the problem wasn't in the translation but in the choice of words, I think that nothing would have happened if they would have said "Sorry we don't have branded cups today". The problem appeared when they said "we are using cups made in Argentina" after saying they were sorry.

    Argentina is going through a very special period in which politics are taking over the daily conversations. The current president arouses love and hate among the people, and the ones that love her are against foreign companies so they took this as an opportunity to attack an American company for saying they were sorry they were using non-branded cups.

    Argentinian culture is not about politics. Right now they are misleading everyone into finding a common enemy and they've found it in this American company. Two months ago they were talking about going to war with England over the Falkland Islands. Tomorrow they will find another target. Sadly, this is how it rolls down there.

    • Melissa Agnes July 18, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      Thanks very much for your feedback, Gisele! It's helpful to understand the culture and current political affairs of a country in these situations. You're input and insights are invaluable.

      So, in part, Ike is correct. It had something to do with the wording, just not the translation. Perhaps such offence would have risen in other countries as well. Though, it was a series of different current situations that put Starbucks in hot water.

      In a crisis communications standpoint, Starbucks did their job well and I'm sure this whole episode will blow over in no time. There's nothing left for Starbucks to do or say, other than to let it die down.

      Thanks to the both of you, Ike and Gisele for this insightful conversation!

    • Eduardo Becerra July 18, 2012 at 3:57 pm #


      Just adding up to the discussion, I think Gisele is correct in the translation part. However, this issue goes beyond government and it is related to our national sensitivity. Although many Argentinians enjoy Starbucks coffee on a daily basis, they could not stand the meaning of the message in deep structure: "We will use national cups instead of imported ones," which implies a lower quality. I think it is not specific to our culture, any other country would have been offended by this unfortunate choice of words. Also, in relation to Gisela's point, it is either related to a political party, since I have followed the case in several forums and, independent from the political flag, the discontent was almost unanimous.

      Finally, you know very well that Argentina and the Argentinian Government are utterly against a war with the UK. You can easily check that in any on-line newspaper. The government has neither part in this issue with Starbucks nor it is an issue specific to the followers of the president.

      I hope my contribution helps to understand, with all respect, from a different viewpoint.

      Best regards,

      • Gisele Navarro Mendez July 18, 2012 at 5:20 pm #

        Hi Eduardo,

        I would like to reply to your comment.

        I didn’t intend to stick this to the Government, I was explaining to Melissa that they people in Argentina are really involved with politics and that I thought that was the reason why half of the country screamed to Starbucks. The fact that many people are taking this as an attach to the “national product” tells me that possibly most of those people could be followers of the current government, but that’s just my reading over their messages and tweets.

        “I think it is not specific to our culture, any other country would have been offended by this unfortunate choice of words.”

        Honestly, I don’t think that would be the case. Although the first message was poorly written, the way in which people reacted to that message and the second one was out of proportion completely.

        Anyway, Starbucks will learn from this. They do a great job on their social profiles, and this will help them improve even more.

      • David Baker August 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm #

        Melissa, I subscribed today and read this blog. I wanted to say that sometimes a simple and generic response is the best response. The tweet from Starbucks gave too much information and gave a bad impression. Starbucks did not need to report from where the temporary cups were coming from, only to report that some businesses would temporarily be using non-branded cups. Giving out product supply lines went too far. It left room for interpretation, good or bad.

        My late two cents!

        • Melissa Agnes August 26, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

          I agree, David. It was unnecessary information to reveal, which resulted the way that it did. I'm sure Starbucks learned a lesson from it, and hopefully other organizations did as well.

          Your two cents is always welcome!


  3. Gisele Navarro Mende July 18, 2012 at 5:23 pm #

    *as an ATTACK to the “national product”

  4. Facundo July 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    I think the problem is that most Argentines have take nationalism very seriously. The only problem was that they misused the words and thus caused a mayhem among those who support our dearest President who won't let us buy dollars and won't let brands import products (so they are made in Argentina). And she taught her supporters to hate anything that's not Argentine, so well, there it goes!

    We can't blame Starbucks for communicating such thing, just blame them for communicating it the wrong way. I think most of the people who insulted the brand are hypocrite because I went to Starbucks today and it was as packed as usual, so I don't see why they moan on-line instead of disliking the page or start consuming their coffee.

    Just like in Politics, we Argentines always say we are going to do something but we never do it.

    • Facundo July 18, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

      Most Argentines take* (line 1)
      stop consuming* (line 9)

      Dear me, typos are hitting me big time.

  5. ariel July 18, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    It is not about to "please everyone" Starbucks here in Argentina did the worst they could do, they attacked the national industry and they used social media to communicate something that should be said only to customers in the affected stores. It would be much better to inform customers directly in the few stores affected and to the ones that only received white cups without the logo. Another possibility "if they really wanted to use social media" would be to inform that they were using DIFFERENT CUPS for a limited time due to…. and that would be OK too.
    Of course I will stop going to Starbucks after this, besides, we have much better coffee stores than this one.

  6. Yanina July 19, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    I have never taken a Starbucks coffee, because I think that is not necesary to buy fast food or drink in this case ha ha ! But is very common that teens take photos with a Starbucks coffee (IT IS VERY COOL) … and now, the same persons say "that SB have to use national products" and they had already know that these cups were not produced here and had never said any word about that.
    It was only a bad use of the words, and people wanted to take the advantage to use this error to got dirty international companys

  7. Melissa Agnes July 19, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    It's agreed then! Starbucks' poor choice of words were their downfall that lead to the unintentional offence of many.

    They have redeemed themselves, in my opinion and I don't see this little crisis having any sort of major impact on the brand locally.

    Thanks to all for sharing your opinions and cultural insights! It's been an interesting discussion :)

  8. Ming-Yen Liu December 15, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    I made the same mistake like Starbucks did during the Thanksgiving.

    I posted “Happy Turkey Day!!! Let’s listen to my favorite Turkish singer and have Turkey, shall we?’ on Facebook. One of my Turkish friends felt offensive what I posted and she thought I was trying to attack Turkish people and her country. She wants me to apologize to her country and people. I did and also explained to her my intention but it didn’t turn out so well.

    I agree with you that companies should have social media plans even just personal use. However, do you think It’s also important for companies to post something interesting enough to click “like,” leave their comments, or even encourage them to do the action because they spend lots of budget to create these photos, videos and other contents.

    How to find the thin line for companies to attract social media followers and satisfy them with appropriate comments if companies couldn’t please every followers?

    • Melissa Agnes December 16, 2012 at 10:18 am #

      I’m sorry to hear what happened to you, Ming-Yen, and it sounds that you handled it properly. Unfortunately, we can never please everyone, and if one person gets offensive and takes something that you meant lightly, the wrong way, all you can do is explain, apologize and move on. The bright side: at least it wasn’t a whole country attacking you!

      Don’t let this experience stop you from marketing and connecting with your customers on social media. The important thing, when it comes to social media marketing and social media crisis communications, is to have a well thought-out plan. Know what your objectives/messaging are/is and what your goals are; stay true to your brand’s voice, morals and ethics and always focus on building a relationship with your market, no matter what you’re doing.

      Best of luck to you, Ming-Yen! And good for you for understanding the proper ways to connect with your audience!


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