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Starbucks Red Cups Spark Consumer Salivating (and Controversy)

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In 1997, Starbucks was beginning to expand outside of the U.S. and Canada and introduced the first of its holiday cups to generate interest, swapping the standard design for red cups with festive imagery on them.

Each year a different design was featured on the red background, and the campaign became a swift success with the public.

Source: Business Insider

The cups not only welcomed the arrival of the festive season, but signify the beginning of Starbucks’ holiday menu — including novel flavors such as ‘Pumpkin Spice’ and ‘Chestnut Praline’ latte.

In this way, the campaign repeats annually, remaining fresh by adding new designs and drink flavors every year, and even inspiring similar campaigns from rivals such as Dunkin’ Donuts.

2015’s Minimalist Red

The most interesting year for the campaign was undoubtedly 2015, when the cups carried a ‘minimalist’ red color without further imagery.

Photo: My Daily News

Starbucks was soon embroiled in a globally-discussed controversy, accused of removing Christian imagery from the holiday cups in pursuit of political correctness.

Commentators on Twitter were quick to point out that the ‘cups didn’t have Christian symbols on them to begin with,’ trending under #ItsJustACup.

Nevertheless, Starbucks’ cups were heavily discussed on social media and talk shows hosted by celebrities such as Ellen Degeneres, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert, and even Donald Trump commented upon the matter.

Photo: Peter Gasca

Although the campaign was popular to begin with, the furor in 2015 gave Starbucks additional publicity beyond what any advertising campaign could purchase.

The reaction on social media, and subsequently among celebrities, ensured that the campaign reached an enormous global audience: in the 13 weeks leading to December 27th, the company made sales 11.9% higher than the previous year.

Somewhat ironically, in producing their most minimal and plain design of the campaign, Starbucks initiated a storm in a coffee cup which returned billions in sales.

2016’s Green Cup Debate

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Starbucks introduced on November 1 what it termed ‘pre-election’ cups.

These green cups featured a “mosaic of more than a hundred people drawn in one continuous stroke.” Starbucks said it was meant to represent community and unity in a time of political divisiveness.

But despite Starbucks’ intentions, it received backlash from a group of people claiming that the holiday cup threatened traditional holiday values and aligned with what the detractors called the company’s ‘war on Christmas.’

Later that month, Starbucks released a red holiday-themed cup.

2017’s Gender Ambiguity

In 2017, Starbucks’ red cup showcased a collage of presents, snowflakes, and the arms of two people holding hands.

Controversy around the message on their cups started to roll in because the gender of the people holding hands was not clear.

2018’s Holiday Sell-Out

In 2018, Starbucks decided to tone down the controversy from prior years by releasing traditionally designed holiday cups featuring candy canes, ornaments, and holly.

Starbucks also promoted a special limited edition reusable holiday cup, given out to customers for free on November 2. Customers that brought the reusable cup over the holidays were offered 50-cent discounts on winter-themed drinks. 

On November 2, Starbucks fans lined up to get the limited edition cup — which sold out in just two hours. Irate fans took to Twitter to complain.

For the first time in a couple of years, Starbucks avoided socio-political controversy — only to find itself in hot water because of sold out cups. 

Generating controversy around your campaign can provide PR that no amount of money could buy, though it comes with inherent risk.

Winning Early Holiday Promotion

Starbucks is the first brand that comes to mind when I think of holiday campaigns. Their products are on people’s mind from September through January.

They create a buzz that puts people on the edge of their seats as they wait for the release of their holiday cups.

– Vladimir Gendelman, Founder & CEO, Printwand

Holiday Marketing Takeaway

Generating controversy around your campaign can provide PR that no amount of money could buy, though it comes with inherent risk.

Kunle Campbell avatar

Kunle is a trusted advisor to ambitious, agile ecommerce brands. His core strengths lies in growing revenue by developing and executing scalable customer acquisition and search marketing strategies for online retailers.  He blogs, runs webinars and teach courses about ecommerce growth on He also hosts an ecommerce podcast dedicated to growing and scaling online retail businesses.