The Starbucks Red Cup Controversy: A War On Christmas, Or Clever Marketing? blog header image

The Starbucks Red Cup Controversy: A War On Christmas, Or Clever Marketing?

Starbucks sparks controversy after unveiling their annual holiday cup design, which this year trades traditional symbols associated with the holiday season for a new modern minimalist design.

The coffee chain has featured holiday-themed coffee cups in stores since 1997, often adorned with designs of snowflakes, ornaments, reindeer and other seasonal images. Some customers were upset upon discovery of the blank 2015-cup design and took to social media to vent their frustrations, claiming Starbucks is waging, or has contributed to the ‘war on Christmas’, by not decorating their coffee cups. These claims sparked further debate dividing liberals and conservatives on a range of topics, including religion, inclusiveness, persecution, modernization, and political correctness.

Responses to the controversy have largely been mixed, with some agreeing to the criticism, while others defend the coffee chains freedom to design their cups as they see fit for their personal business marketing efforts and brand image. The majority in the social media community, on websites and other platforms, have been leaning more to the ‘what’s the big deal?’ side of the spectrum. These individuals are citing that there is no pre-established Christmas cup checklist or template that Starbucks, or any business for that matter, is required to adhere to.




Largely Conservative Christians are arguing that they are experiencing religious persecution through the holiday season in recent years. Some even boldly arguing that because of the trends of secularization and cultural inclusiveness in today’s society, that it creates an affront to Christianity. Those boycotting Starbucks are claiming it isn’t just about the cup, but about the underlying larger narrative surrounding the elimination of the traditional designs on the cup. Many are calling for the ‘Christ’ to be put back into Christmas.




The liberal media is arguing in defense of Starbucks, stating that this isn’t apart of a ‘War on Christmas’, but rather, it’s just a simple design change, which occurs yearly.

This position sparked the hashtag #ItsJustACup , which aims to highlight how some feel the debate to be foolish. Symbols like snowflakes and skates are not representative of the Christian religion anyways, and the Starbucks cups have never been overly thematic to begin with.

The cup designs have never been Christian themed, but have been winter themed, which people are forgetting are not one in the same. Snowflakes, ice skates and holly, are not representative images of Jesus, or of Christianity. Defenders have further gone to highlight the fact that the coffee chain still sells ‘Christmas’ calendars, cookies, themed cards, tree ornaments, and a specialty Christmas blend coffee, so to boycott is to really blow the cup design out of proportion.




For the most part, Starbucks response has been as minimal as the design on their cups. When asked about the new design,  “… our core values as a company [is] to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity. Each year during the holidays we aim to bring our customers an experience that inspires the spirit of the season and we will continue to embrace and welcome customers from all backgrounds and religions in our stores around the world.”

The new cups are not meant to be a signal of a non-denominational effort to celebrate the holidays, but rather a signal of inclusiveness for everyone, the new cup is red, which goes with the traditional theme, but is unadorned to serve as a “blank canvas” that encourages “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way”, “we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” Starbucks claims they got the idea from seeing customers doodle on their cups over the years and decided to take it a step further.




Does Starbucks hate Jesus, or is this simply a great marketing stunt? Did the coffee chain strategically release cups, unadorned and blank, so as to insight emotion and in turn create attention for their company? Think about how much talk was generated over the cups design, including news coverage, social media sites, tweets, hashtags, shares, etc. Although 67% of the tweets around Starbucks holiday cups have carried out negative sentiment, only 17% of the negative sentiment indicates an actual frustration towards Starbucks, while most of the negative tweets were over the backlash surrounding the new designs.  Further, 15% of tweets were positive, while 19% were neutral.

With respect to financial performance, Starbucks has fared very well throughout the month of November as the ticker price hovered around $61, with a slight increase (~$63) following the release of the viral video on Facebook that sparked the controversy on the November 6-7th weekend.

More than likely, Starbucks is going to be okay after this. The brand is unlikely to suffer, and they will have also generated a new buzz around their name, which will ultimately serve as a sort of testament to how strong that brand is. Furthermore, the attempts at inclusion will undoubtedly bring in new customers from minority groups who might have felt excluded from the previous holiday imagery.



Leave a Reply

We have permission to contact you