Chapter 16 Starbucks Red Cups Spark Consumer Salivating (and Controversy)
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In 1997, Starbucks was beginning to expand outside of the U.S. and Canada and introduced the first of its holiday cups to generate interest, swapping the standard design for red cups with festive imagery on them.
Each year a different design was featured on the red background, and the campaign became a swift success with the public.
The cups not only welcomed the arrival of the festive season, but signify the beginning of Starbucks’ holiday menu — including novel flavors such as ‘Pumpkin Spice’ and ‘Chestnut Praline’ latte.
In this way, the campaign repeats annually, remaining fresh by adding new designs and drink flavors every year, and even inspiring similar campaigns from rivals such as Dunkin’ Donuts.
The most interesting year for the campaign was undoubtedly 2015, when the cups carried a ‘minimalist’ red color without further imagery.
Starbucks was soon embroiled in a globally-discussed controversy, accused of removing Christian imagery from the holiday cups in pursuit of political correctness. Commentators on Twitter were quick to point out that the ‘cups didn’t have Christian symbols on them to begin with,’ trending under #ItsJustACup.
Nevertheless, Starbucks’ cups were heavily discussed on social media and talk shows hosted by celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, and even 2015 Presidential nominee Donald Trump commented upon the matter.
Although the campaign was popular to begin with, the furor in 2015 gave Starbucks additional publicity beyond what any advertising campaign could purchase.
The reaction on social media, and subsequently among celebrities, ensured that the campaign reached an enormous global audience: in the 13 weeks leading to December 27th the company made sales 11.9% higher than the previous year.
Somewhat ironically, in producing their most minimal and plain design of the campaign, Starbucks initiated a storm in a coffee cup which returned billions in sales.
Holiday Marketing Takeaway
Generating controversy around your campaign can provide PR that no amount of money could buy, though it comes with inherent risk.