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/ Source: TODAY
By Ben Popken
Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz writes "Race Together" on a cup in this publicity photo.
Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz writes "Race Together" on a cup in this publicity photo.Starbucks

The next time you get your coffee at Starbucks, your cup might not just have your name and order on it. It also may have an invitation to discuss present-day race relations with the person handing it to you.

Starting Monday, Starbucks baristas across the country have started writing "Race Together" on cups. Starbucks says its employees have been told they can start talking about race in America with customers.

“We at Starbucks should be willing to discuss these issues in America,” said CEO Howard Schultz in a statement released Monday. The company also ran full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today, and baristas in select stores will also sport "Race Together" stickers.

The move drew heated reactions online with many saying that they preferred their coffee without a shot of racial debate.

Marketing experts said the move taps both into the history coffee houses have as a center for debate and political discussion, while also attempting to appeal to younger customers.

"Starbucks has always shown pride in owning the 3rd space – between the office and home," said marketing author Martin Lindstrom. "The problem is that Starbucks has turned into this big corporation without soul."

"Much of the anti-war movement in the 1960's was fomented in coffee houses," said Larry DeGaris, a professor of marketing at the University of Indianapolis. "This latest move seems like a strategy to make Starbucks a center for community discussion and activity in an effort to appeal to young adults."

The company has a history of getting into thorny political topics. In 2012, baristas in D.C. wrote "Come Together" on cups to protest the debt ceiling debate. The company has also come out in favor of gay marriage.

Some stores have been experimenting recently with taking customer engagement at the counter beyond the simple transaction. A McDonald's campaign around Valentine's Day gave randomly selected patrons the chance to get their food for free if they performed dances or gave other customers hugs.

Email ben.popken@nbcuni.com or tweet @bpopken.