Starbucks goes from brilliant to stupid and back to brilliant with their red cups



For years, the Starbucks red cup has been a symbol that Christmas is coming. It is completely irrational, but then again isn’t everything about Starbucks irrational.

When you reach the Beloved stage like Starbucks, it becomes all about the experience and the magical moments you can create. While you can continue to attack yourself before others can attack you, it’s also about maintaining the love by creating a bit of magic to surprise and delight your most loyal consumers. For a brand that taps into routine, having a regular set of drinks and desserts around Christmas gives the consumers some festive favorites to liven up the routine a little bit. Being a life ritual each and every day gets even bigger when you become a tradition each Christmas. For 10 years, Starbucks has used red cups to  create excitement with consumers. Here’s a quote from the head of brand in 2013.

Terry Davenport, Senior Vice President, Global Brand, said in 2013 that “When the cups turn red at Starbucks, that’s one of the first cues that the holidays are upon us. The emotional connection that our store partners (employees) have when they open that first box of the red cups and start using them that first day, and the emotional connection they see from their customers, that’s what we strive for. They see that surprise and excitement: ‘Oh, the red cups are at Starbucks!”red_holiday_cups_2016_graphic_swirls_

If you have been into a Starbucks during the Christmas period, you will certainly feel the magic of the holiday season. Every Starbucks feels well-decorated but never over stated. You can smell peppermint and ginger as soon as you walk in. If you want to add some flavor to your regular Latte, you can go for a Caramel Brûlé, Eggnog or Peppermint. And if you want to try one of the Christmas deserts, there’s Gingerbread loafs, Frosted Snowman cookies or the Cranberry Bliss Bar. Better yet, have you had one of those incredible Peppermint Brownie Cake Pops?

More impressively, according to Starbucks, “within the first 48 hours of red Starbucks cups launching in 2014, a photo of a Starbucks holiday cup was shared on Instagram every 14 seconds.” The event is so popular and anticipated, it has even given rise to countdown clocks. Sure it’s crazy, but it’s crazy fun. Kinda like Santa Claus, just crazy fun.

And then Starbucks got really dumb for a moment in 2015

Starbucks dStarbucks Holiday Cup Causes Online Controversyecided to launch a plain red cup, to ensure everyone felt included in the festivities. Plain red without any a pattern or design. There are no snowflakes, stars, or snowmen. And people were pissed. And social media screamed at the brand. This was seen by the public as one more “politically correct” thing in their lives. People understand not everyone is Christian, but can’t you just put a snowflake on the damn coffee cup.

In a world of social media, things can unravel very quickly. Within days of the launch last year, the issue began to dominate the headlines. One Youtube video blasting Starbucks generated 15 million views within days, with 500,000 people shared it. The red cup issue became one of the top stories in the country. Starbucks had lost control of their brand story. The controversy certainly caught Starbucks by surprise. Only after the issue developed did it release a statement noting that with the new design, “Starbucks is inviting customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas.”
This was the second time in a year that Starbucks had used their coffee cups to make a political statement. Earlier in the year, in order to promote unity among people, they encouraged their baristas to write #RaceTogether on cups. But the campaign didn’t sit well with some Starbuckrace-together-starbucks-cupss customers. Many voiced on social media and elsewhere that they didn’t want a debate with their brew. So Starbucks backed down.

Howard Schultz’s note to employees acknowledged the sceptics as an anticipated part of the outreach. “While there has been criticism of the initiative — and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you — let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise.” Shultz said the campaign at its core aims to make sure that “the promise of the American Dream should be available to every person in this country, not just a select few.” Clearly, the average Starbucks consumer didn’t want a conversation–just a latte.

Brands need to be careful about over-playing their purpose. Consultants and Marketers are currently in love with brand purpose. Books, videos and boardroom meetings on brand purpose. I love brand purpose as well, but many times it is better used for the internal marketing. You have to understand what type of brand you are. And while internally, brand purpose drives the culture of Starbucks, externally to consumers Starbucks is an experience brand. Trying to mix the two, appears to leave consumers with a bad experience. To many consumers, Starbucks is an escape. With the current political climate, Starbucks needs to just keep things simple to ensure people can have that comfort of the escape. The consumer is now begging Starbucks for no more political messages. Can they resist in the future?

And now in 2016, Starbucks has done the right brand move going to 13 distinct Holiday designs.Taking last year’s controversy where consumers were drawing on their own cups, Starbucks has taken the best designs from their customers around the world and made them part of this year’s campaign. Here’s the video on the new red cups.


Smart recovery move by Starbucks. Now everyone can enjoy their little red cups in peace and harmony. Let’s see which brand can stay on brand message longer:  Trump or Starbucks.

Stay true to your brand and stay true to your consumers! 

Passion in Marketing Execution Matters. If you don’t love it, how do you expect your consumer to love it? If you “sorta like” it, then it will be “sorta ok” in the end. But if you love it, you’ll go the extra mile and make it amazing. To read more about how to drive your Marketing Execution, here is our workshop that shows everything you need to know, to have the smarts of strategy, the discipline of leadership and the passion of creativity to generate brand love in today’s modern world.

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