There has been a lot in the news this week. The Republican presidential candidates held their latest debate. Speculation continues about the crash of a jetliner in Egypt. Students and faculty are debating the meaning of diversity and free speech at Yale and the University of Missouri. It is remarkable then, that Starbucks (SBUX) has captured so much attention for its holiday cup. It is just a cup, after all. But unlike previous years the coffee giant’s traditional red cup is just red; it doesn’t have a pattern or design. There are no snowflakes, stars, or snowmen.
This has outraged many people who see the move as an attack on Christianity. Social media personality Joshua Feurstein was one of the first to raise the issue, declaring it an attack on Christ. Various media outlets have covered the dispute in depth. Even presidential candidate Donald Trump addressed the issue this week at a rally in Illinois, stating “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks. I don’t know.” The unfolding story highlights four important points about managing brands in the digital world.
Things can unfold quickly
Starbucks released the holiday cups on November 1. The controversy started on November 5. Within days, the issue dominated the headlines. More than 15 million people have watched Feurstein’s video already, and more than 500,000 people shared it. In less than five days, the red cup issue became one of the top stories in the country. It seems we’re in a cultural debate over a red cup — whether Starbucks should keep the merriment printed on it or not — when our focus should be on larger issues.
It’s nearly impossible to predict reactions
Who could have anticipated that a new cup design would prompt such an outcry? The controversy certainly caught Starbucks by surprise. Only after the issue developed did it release a statement noting that with the new design, “Starbucks is inviting customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas.”
This isn’t the first time that Starbucks faced an unexpected social medial backlash. Earlier this year the company cut short its ambitious “Race Together” initiative after the issue generated strong criticism. Companies should make an effort to anticipate how people might react to different issues, but its impossible to always get it right. There is no reason why Starbucks should have anticipated this controversy; the company wasn’t getting rid of the red cups, just adopting a new, cleaner design.
Move fast when issues develop
Speed is essential to get ahead of developing issues. Starbucks did what companies need to do when stories develop: It responded quickly and honestly. Starbucks issued a statement on November 8, three days after Feurstein’s post. The company clearly explained its intentions with the new design.
Waiting even a few hours to respond to an issue can be a problem. United Airlines was slow to respond to complaints about a broken guitar from passenger Dave Carroll. He eventually posted a now famous music video “United Breaks Guitars” that has generated more than 15 million views. In December 2013, Justine Sacco, then a senior director of corporate communications at IAC, made a racist comment on Twitter just before getting on a flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. By the time she landed some 11 hours later, she had become one of the top trending topics on Twitter, as people heaped scorn on her comment.
Trust that common sense will prevail
As the red cup gained attention, many people took to social media to defend it. Some argued correctly, that Starbucks never had “Merry Christmas” on the cups at all. Others pointed out that it was just a cup, such as this Tribune reporter via Twitter.
One blogger, Avery Sovey, explained the situation quite well. She observed in a video post, “I don’t understand why a red cup is so offensive. I understand it doesn’t have all the Christmassy things, but it never had Jesus Christmassy things. It had all the mainstream pagan-y Christmassy things. So for us to be getting offended is a little ridiculous.”
Tim Calkins is a clinical professor of marketing at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and the author of Defending Your Brand: How Smart Companies Use Defensive Strategy to Deal with Competitive Attacks.
The nature of their relationship was not specified, but some viewers saw them as a nod toward the inclusion of gay and transgender customers.
The video itself did not attract negative attention. The latest controversy has focused instead on a pair of gender-neutral hands holding each other on the side of the cup itself.
Those linked hands came to wider public attention after BuzzFeed published an article about them on Wednesday.
It suggested the cup was “totally gay.”
“While people who follow both Starbucks holiday cup news and L.G.B.T. issues celebrated the video, the ordinary Starbucks customer probably didn’t realize the cup might have a gay agenda,” BuzzFeed said.
After that, it was off to the races.
Fox News picked up the story of what it called the “androgynous” cartoon hands, referring to Bible-quoting critics of Starbucks and criticizing BuzzFeed, which it said had “asserted the hypothesis is fact.”
The conservative site The Blaze also waded in, saying Starbucks had launched a “gay agenda campaign.”
Fox said it asked Starbucks about the cartoons but the company “neither confirms nor denies the allegations,” by which it presumably meant the promotion of lesbianism.
But in an email to The Times, Starbucks said it would let customers decide for themselves what the cup was about.
“This year’s hand-drawn cup features scenes of celebrating with loved ones — whoever they may be,” said Sanja Gould, a company spokeswoman. “We intentionally designed the cup so our customers can interpret it in their own way, adding their own color and illustrations.”
The War on Christmas
Controversy over the design of seasonal Starbucks cups is just one front in an annual culture war over the role of religion and liberalism in the five-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, a period that people inclined toward interfaith outreach might call “the holiday season.”
Like many divisive cultural debates, arguments over the Christian bona fides of seasonal Starbucks cups appear to have intensified during the 2016 presidential campaign as political and social tensions heightened in many areas of American life.
In 2015, Starbucks announced it would remove traditional holiday symbols, like reindeer and Christmas trees, from its holiday cups in favor of a more minimalist red design.
In a statement released at the time, the company said it wanted to “create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity” and meant the cups as an invitation for “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way, with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas.”
That decision was met with an angry online backlash from conservatives and others who saw it as an example of political correctness run amok. Joshua Feuerstein, a conservative Christian activist with a robust social media presence, urged a boycott in a Facebook video that has been viewed over 17 million times.
One of the people who weighed in on the 2015 Starbucks controversy was then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who frequently used his campaign speeches to complain about people and retailers who say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.”
At a rally that November, he identified Starbucks as an offender and suggested the company was due for some backlash.
“I have one of the most successful Starbucks, in Trump Tower,” he told the crowd. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. That’s the end of that lease, but who cares?”
When asked why Starbucks, a mammoth global brand, seemed to get ensnared in seasonal controversies so often, Ms. Gould, the spokeswoman, demurred.
In an email, she said that each customer’s experience was “intensely personal,” and said the company was “humbled by how passionate customers are about our holiday cups.”
The cup controversy has been less heated this year, though. Mr. Trump has not weighed in on the alleged sexual orientation of the cartoon, and Mr. Feuerstein also appeared to be sitting this one out, according to a post he wrote on Facebook.
He said this year he was focused on “building a friendship and witnessing to a gay black man who works at the Starbucks” he frequents instead of stoking online outrage.
“I’m supposed to be taking him to dinner soon and hopefully sharing the rest of the gospel with him,” he wrote. “There’s your controversy.”Continue reading the main story