How Starbucks Won Back the Holidays

November 11th, 2016

Since 1997, Starbucks fans have come to expect and even welcome the special red coffee cup that signals the unofficial beginning of the winter holiday season. However, last year when Starbucks debuted a sleek red ombre cup noticeably lacking traditional holiday designs, it caused an uproar to say the least.

(It’s important to note that, despite all of the drama, Starbucks experienced its strongest holiday season ever last year, exceeding sales expectations.)

Still sore from last year’s Christmas cup controversy, many Starbucks devotees have been waiting expectantly to see what Starbucks would bring to the table for the 2016 holiday season. Little did they know what Starbucks had tucked away in its apron for this year.

The Long Road to the Red Cup

When November rolled around, Starbucks fans were more than ready to take a peek at the new holiday cup design. But what did they get? Definitely not what they were expecting.

On November 1, Starbucks debuted a special green cup with a hand drawn design to celebrate community, most likely in support of the upcoming election. When the announcement didn’t come with any information about the reappearance of red holiday cups, major confusion and anger ensued and many people took it upon themselves to assume the worst: no red holiday cups this year (a tragedy of mass proportions). Even more confusing was that Starbucks chose that same day to debut their holiday beverage collection.

After keeping very quiet for a few days, Starbucks announced via social media that the beloved red holiday cups would return on November 10. However, they kept the details to a minimum, barely revealing anything about nature of the cups besides that they would indeed be red.

So naturally, what did Starbucks fans do? They turned into special Starbucks investigators. Once the return of the red cups was announced, predictions and even “leaked” previews of the cups themselves began popping up all over the internet, leading people to believe there were anywhere between one and eight different cups with widely varying designs.

The Big Reveal

Thursday night, Starbucks lovers got their answer when Starbucks revealed its holiday 2016 cup(s) design: thirteen different cups with thirteen different designs… and not one of them was designed by Starbucks.

Here’s the scoop: last season, when it seemed like everyone had something to say about the lackluster plain red cup, Starbucks encouraged everyone to share their own improvements by doodling directly onto the cups and sharing their ideas via Instagram. According to Dena Blevins of the Starbucks of the Starbucks Global Creative Studio,  Starbucks “quickly realized there was potential to use the customer-created art for our holiday cups.”

After receiving over a thousand holiday cup design images from all over the world, which were showcased on Starbucks’ Red Cup Collection website, Starbucks used thirteen of those designs to inspire the 2016 holiday cup collection.

Teachable Moment

The amount of attention that Starbucks’ coffee cup controversy caused both in the form of media coverage and social media engagement last holiday season made one thing very clear: people care way more about the disposable vessels that hold their coffee beverages than anyone, including Starbucks, thought.

Faced with a sticky situation, Starbucks had some important choices to make for this year. Even if Starbucks’ reputation was never actually in jeopardy (they’re still alive and kickin’), the “war on Christmas” cups debacle signaled to Starbucks that they had a deeply invested captive audience.

So what did Starbucks do this year? They proved that they were paying attention. Without acknowledging any of last year’s drama, Starbucks brought traditional holiday designs back to the red holiday cup. This simple action shows that Starbucks values the opinions of its devoted customers and fans.

But Starbucks took it a step further than that. By allowing their customers to contribute ideas and designs for the new holiday cups, they handed their customers the reins, making it clear the length to which they are willing to go to satisfy their customer base. What better way to make sure your customers are satisfied than to let them get involved in the process?

It’s not rocket science, but seeking customer involvement can be a powerful gesture that shows exactly how much you trust and value your most loyal fans. Thus far, it seems like most Starbucks fans  are pretty pleased with the cups as well as the symbolic gesture behind them.

Though it was a long fought battle, in the supposed “war against Christmas” of 2015, I declare Starbucks the clear victor. But don’t worry, a gingerbread latte and a cranberry bliss bar will soothe the sting of defeat.

Ariel Kramer

Ariel dabbles in a little bit of everything from media relations and content creation to social media and blogging. When she's not on the clock, you can bet she's reading, eating, or binge-watching Gilmore Girls (or more likely doing all three at the same time).

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