Jan 04, 2016 Categories: Brand Communications Tags: Corporate Communications, Current Events, Social Media

In early November, Starbucks released its much anticipated annual holiday “red cup.” To the surprise of some and the angst of a few—but loud—nay-sayers, the cup was devoid of any specific holiday messaging. No snowflakes, snowmen, holly or messaging… It was just a red cup.
The controversy that followed – sparked by a social media post calling out the brand as “anti-Christmas,” – was superficial at best. It played itself out extensively across social media channels and quickly went mainstream with mentions on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CNBC, Saturday Night Live and even got airtime with Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who suggested (tongue-in-cheek) that we should boycott Starbucks. Twitter was ablaze with hashtags like #MerryChristmasStarbucks and its counter-message, #JustaCup.

Starbucks quickly released a comment explaining that the cups were designed to “ customers to create their own stories with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas,” and that the company “wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”

In both mainstream and online media, the faux controversy was more often mocked than taken seriously, but its consequence seemed to be a win for the leading U.S. coffee shop brand. As it turns out, the brand itself was stronger than the conflict, and I imagine the Starbucks’ C-suite and communications teams breathed a hefty sigh of relief when it faded from the limelight.

Additionally, according to news reports in late December, rather than facing a catastrophic holiday-season revenue loss, Starbucks was anticipating record gift card sales this year, expecting to far surpass last year’s record sales of 2.5 million cards sold on December 24, 2014, alone.

There are several lessons that companies of all sizes can take away from this incident, especially for those with brands that are less well-known or are just getting started:

  1. Be Ready. Who would have thought that a simple cup – with NO inscriptions or messaging – would spark a national protest? Firms large and small must have a crisis plan and team in place well in advance of issues like this arising.
  2. Be Vigilant. Keep an eye on all channels of communication – most importantly social media – to get a sense of how your brand is being portrayed and discussed. The quicker you recognize a potential issue, the better your chances of reducing fallout.
  3. Be Responsive. No matter how minor or “silly” the controversy may seem, a quick response is almost always required to prevent a “crack in the dam” from becoming a flood. In all but very few circumstances, “no comment” is not a proper or valid response.
  4. Be Available. While the “red cups” incident did not require a public spokesperson to respond to the conflict, companies should always have a media-trained, high-ranking individual who is able to go on camera at a moment’s notice to defend the brand and make the company’s case in the public domain.

– Brian Hyland

Photo credit: Starbucks

Disclaimer: While the author is a die-hard Dunkin’ Donuts fan, his personal preference did not influence his unbiased analysis of this issue.