Starbucks Offers Double Shot of Holiday Cups

starbucks pr

Remember “Cupgate” a few years ago? When Starbucks tried to go minimalist on their traditional holiday-themed cups, some people were fighting mad. Then there was last year’s cups, which invited customers to draw on them in order to “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity…” Once again, fury erupted in some quarters, leaving Starbucks to defend their aesthetic choices. While that upset passed quickly each time, leaving a general feeling of silliness about the whole episode, Starbucks has clearly not forgotten.

This season, instead of a plain red cup, they’re going with options for holiday-conscious coffee drinkers. The company doubled down on their color choices, offering a pair of primarily green cups as well as a pair of primarily red cups. And, speaking of the infamous red cup, that’s available too. In a reusable plastic version. That seems a clear winking nod to the folks who got bent out of shape about the red cup three years ago.

The Starbucks holiday cup tradition dates back to 1997, and it has proven to offer earned media for the past few years, though no more so than when the coffee company introduced the red-plus-nothing cup. This season, Starbucks COO Roz Brewer said the new holiday designs were in response to the tepid reaction to previous years. “We listened to our customers… They loved the tradition of Christmas…”

That may sound like a canned comment, but it’s really an opening for the company to promote just how “customer-focused” they have been, both on this issue and others that have not gone the company’s way recently. When asked the obvious question – “How did you come up with the designs?” – Starbucks quickly talked about getting “direct feedback” from customers, both in person and through the mobile app.

It’s this, really, that’s the primary point of the holiday cups. Sure, they want the relatively easy earned media that comes with unveiling of the new cups, but what the company really needed, especially after the previous year’s PR trouble, is a message that says, “See, we love and appreciate our customers!”

And that’s what Brewer says is the message. “We learn from everything we do in our stores… Last year’s cup didn’t resonate with some, but it did resonate with others…” So, why take the risk again? Once again, Brewer says it’s for the customers: “Our customers have come to expect (the holiday cups…) It’s exciting for them…”

Exciting for the customer, maybe, but also an annual opportunity for Starbucks to earn some media and promote their “customer-centered” brand message as well.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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