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What does a red cup have to do with branding?

Full Stop – red cups are part of the Starbucks brand experience. As a matter of fact, over 60 million Starbucks cups are served each and every week. From the beginning of November until the end of December, Starbucks will be serving 480 million red holiday cups to help celebrate the festive season.

 

Eighteen years ago Starbucks launched their first holiday red cup – a duration that has created great expectations beyond a simple disposal coffee cup. Has this red cup replaced the advent calendar? With all the controversy so far this season you need to wonder.

 

 

Over the year’s Starbucks red cups has celebrated the holiday season with snowflakes, doves, reindeer, snowman, vintage ornaments, poinsettias, and Christmas trees, but this year they opted for a minimalist design of a two-tone red cup with no images. This brilliant long-term campaign has taken some of Coca-Cola’s best Christmas ideas and put them on a cup. Check out Time’s magazine for the evolution of the Starbucks red cup over the last seven years. This year’s red cup sans holiday icons has become blasphemy for many Christian’s organizations or an opportunity to create a controversy to garner media attention.

 

 

“In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs,” said Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks’ Vice President of Design and Content. “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”

 

Customers See Red

 

Former Arizona Pastor Joshua Feuerstein wrote in a Facebook post “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus,” that went viral with over 14 million views in the last five days. This extreme view has stirred up the media and the social channels. Even Donald Trump has entered into the picture with the suggestion of boycotting Starbucks. Obviously he doesn’t have any Starbucks shares in his portfolio.

 

Starbucks issued a statement Sunday explaining that they are trying to create an environment that encourages “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way” and “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.“

 

Jay Parini, a poet and author of Jesus: The Human Face of God said on CNN.com that Starbucks red cup is an attempt to remove even the most secular side of Christmas by “strip[ping] all texture and mythic potential from contemporary life – seems beyond absurd, perhaps even dangerous, as it points in the direction of total blankness, a life lived without depth, without meaning.”

 

Or from Starbucks point of view it’s about creating your own texture and mythic potential without being spoon feed of what you should think or believe.

 

What 480 Million Red Cups Mean

 

There are a couple learning’s we should all take from this event.

 

First, colour does matter, (check out my article on colour), red is a very strong and vibrant colour that can stimulate high emotions – just ask a raging bull. In 2011, Coca-Cola changed their sacred red Coke can to white to celebrate the holiday season and were punished by retailers and customers who became confused by the change.

 

Second, customers own your brand. Before you change any representation of your brand make sure you understand what your customers’ think. Product packaging is sacred ground for loyal customers. If Apple changed their earphones from white to red what do you think would happen? Maybe nothing or maybe all hell might break loose.

 

Third, by providing ambiguity with a blank red cup and letting the customer fill the void leaves too much room for misinterpretation or anti-brand advocated to take advantage of the situation. The brand must own the space (physically & mentally) and direct the conversation.

 

I am happy that I don’t drink coffee and have to endure this tragedy on a daily bases for the next six weeks. However, I did hear that Starbucks has started using cup sleeves with snowflakes on them. Maybe this will appease the detractors.

 

The great thing is brands continue to have the power to inspire, create conversations and be news worthy without changing anything inside their cup. And as we see here, some brand loyalists will always see the cup as half empty and others as half full. Cheers.

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