Why Starbucks Actually Welcomes Seasonal Cuprising

Starbucks has never been shy about publicity. But in a year when its image took a significant hit after two black patrons were arrested simply for sitting in a Philadelphia store, the company must take a certain comfort in reverting to more pedestrian PR fiascos.

Enter the venerable holiday cup.

This should be a pretty easy thing to get right, right? It’s a receptacle for coffee, lattes and smoothies. But Starbucks has purposefully turned it into a canvas for holiday sentiment, or schmaltz, or unity, or individuality…or, it seems, whatever consumers would like to read into its (pick one) color/doodles/stars/snowflakes/sheen/ intricacy/plainness/temerity).

Because as surely as the appearance of Santa in a Honda commercial on TV, this cuprising has become a staple of the holiday season. And consistent with the theory that “you can’t please everyone,” particularly when you have millions upon millions of loyal customers, not to mention millions more non-customers who simply like to gripe online, the controversial design of these cups has to be by design. Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t paying attention.

Starbucks has long embraced using its popularity to make statements and influence the conversation. What to put on their billions of cups is no small matter. This year, they’ve rankled Americans with four designs – stars, stripes, flames and mistletoe, in holiday colors. The company says they are aspiring to create “a real sense of community and connection between or baristas and customers.” Some see the images as disproportionately Christmas-y, though flames are pretty generic unless you tend to associate fire primarily with the Yule log.

But even when they choose to go plain, as they did in 2015, they are proclaiming their inclusivity, that everyone is welcome to bring their own religion or interpretation to the coffee table. But that backfired – or played right into their PR goals, if you’re more cynical – when the masses, and one candidate for President, took it as removing Christmas from Christmas.

In 2016, Starbucks again played their customers like fiddles with the oh-so-horrifying green cupwith a contiguous drawing of hundreds of random faces, which was intended as a tribute to “community” but instead was seen by many as a political message, or not Christmas-y enough.

And last year, the “doodle cup,” which encouraged customers to add their own drawings and colors in the ample white space, drew ire because of interlocked hands that some believed promoted a gay agenda.

Despite its shortcoming in other areas, including its delayed response to the Philadelphia incident and its theatrics in rectifying the situation – shutting down stores en masse for “training” is never anything but a show to generate media attention – Starbucks has to be commended for taking what is normally just a commodity and creating a buzz around it year after year. By accepting that in the age of social media, its designs will always generate some degree of anger, along with Venti-size praise, the company does what it has always done best: followed its conscience, and if controversy results, all the better.

Gary Frisch
About the author: 

Gary Frisch is the President of Swordfish Communications, LLC., a full-service public relations agency.     Follow Gary on Twitter.