Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. At least, that’s what Starbucks’ management must be thinking right now. The specialty coffee chain has introduced a plain red cup for the holiday season, and sparked a tidal wave of response both positive and negative, and all tremendously valuable publicity. Previous years’ versions of their holiday cups have sported snowflakes, reindeer and snowmen. Apparently, removing these wintry symbols has raised the hackles of the There’s-a-war-on-Christmas crowd because, you know, Jesus was visited by three snowmen on or around his birth, but definitely before the bowl games on New Year’s.
The manufactured outrage has been hilarious, sparked by the maker of one video who advocated going to Starbucks, ordering a drink and telling the barista that your name is “Merry Christmas,” so she will write that on your cup. (I knew a girl in high school named Merry Chris Smith, who was born on December 25th, but that’s a different cup of coffee.) Steven Colbert was quick to note the irony of this notion by pointing out “what better way to stick it to Starbucks than telling everyone to go in and buy their product.”
Conspiracy theorists with some time to kill might even work on the concept that Starbucks did this on purpose. After all, if Donald Trump is a plant from the Democrats, Starbucks could get some guy in a baseball cap to make a video. But if it was a calculated move, the initial Starbucks defense was kind of half-brewed.
“This year’s design is another way Starbucks is inviting customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas,” the company said in a press release. Jeffrey Fields, VP design and content at Starbucks, said they, “wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories. Starbucks has become a place of sanctuary during the holidays. We’re embracing the simplicity and the quietness of it.”
Because Mr. Fields tried stuffing more brand messages into one paragraph than is legal in 39 states, I kind of think they weren’t expecting the backlash, and certainly not the backlash to the backlash, which is making this such a windfall for the Starbucks brand.
“I wonder if we’re not overthinking or overanalyzing this,” said Paul Batura, VP communications at Focus on the Family. “Christmas isn’t found in a cup or in a snowflake. Instead, it’s found in the hearts and minds of those of us who believe that God sent His only son to earth in the form of an innocent, helpless baby.”
I guessing a lot of other level-headed people may be agreeing with Paul on this one, even as they ponder their latte in a deep red cup and try to remember who they have to buy gifts for this year. Fortunately for those people who actually walk into a Starbucks this holiday/Christmas season, there are plenty of Christmas-themed products available at the counter, including Starbucks Christmas Blend, Christmas Blend Vintage 2015, Christmas Blend Espresso Roast, and Starbucks Reserve Christmas 2015. (Wait, no Hanukkah blend? This is an outrage!)
We now know far more about what Starbucks is doing for the holidays than any of us could have imagined a few weeks ago. A surge of publicity and social media silliness has repeatedly brought the brand to screens and pages of all sizes. Amobee Brand Intelligence found that 67 percent of the tweets around Starbucks’ holiday cups carried negative sentiment, but only 17 percent of those showed frustration toward Starbucks. The rest were aimed at the backlash itself.
Which speaks to the bromide that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Starbucks did nothing more than serve its coffee in an all-red cup with their logo on it. Someone yelled “anti-Christmas!” and started a stampede of action and reaction, but, in the end, the Starbucks brand has received priceless publicity and promotion while serious-minded people like Paul Batura have had a chance to suggest where our values should really be focused. Sometimes brands get lucky this way, and in this case, Starbucks hit the jackpot. Me, I’m still trying to embrace the simplicity and the quietness of a red cup…that welcomes my story…like a blank canvas…in a sanctuary…
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal, the Reading Eagle and Lehigh Valley Business .