Last Updated on 13 September 2020

Starbucks is again promoting its Christmastime hero – the red cup.

Or, as we marketers would describe it… “Starbucks is leveraging the red cup to maximize its exposure.”

The arrival of the red cup in November signals the beginning of the Holiday season at Starbucks, especially customer favorites: eggnog latte and the whole bean coffee: Christmas Blend.

The Design

The talented internal Starbucks creative team designs the stores, the cup designs, most of the packaging, and most of the signage you see in-store. As the marketing project lead for the Holiday promotion I was responsible to drive the direction of the in-store creative – including the red cup.

The Debate

A few years ago, there was an internal debate between the marketing and creative departments surrounding the red cup. The marketing team felt strongly that the red cup worked… Customers were excited to see the cup… It signaled Holiday at Starbucks… If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, a few members of the creative team wanted to mix things up and try something different.

The Presentation

While Howard Schultz is involved in the everyday business at Starbucks – he is especially engaged during the design phase of the Christmas Blend coffee bag AND the overall Holiday theme. A key milestone in developing the Holiday promotion is a formal presentation to Howard. That year, it went well. Howard made a minor suggestion for the design of the Christmas Blend packaging and gave the red cup design a thumbs-up!

Whoosh! Success! We could move forward. Our long-lead timelines could be met… I sent word that the Holiday promotion was on-track!

The Secret Pitch

What I didn’t know was that after my official meeting had adjourned… a few members of the creative team pulled Howard aside and presented him with an alternate design. This design utilized the icon white cup – but augmented it with shiny-silvery holiday designs. A convincing presentation showcased a metallic ink design that would truly make the WHITE cup look remarkable. A big selling feature was that it allowed the icon white cup with the green logo to remain throughout the season. Howard thought it looked great and approved this alternate approach.

Off To Print

Because the white with silver design was added at the last minute, there wasn’t time for the creative team to do preliminary printing press checks. They had to go directly from concept to print. They began running enough cups for all stores across North America – millions of cups. So many, printers have to print them in stages…

The Oversight

Cases of cups were shipping to the stores. It was the second week of November and the launch of Holiday had begun… A case was delivered to the creative team at Starbucks HQ in Seattle.

The bright silvery design experiment failed. Instead of silver glimmer, they had a flat, gray design, which literally looked like someone doodled on the cup with a pencil. What was envisioned, created, and pitched in the studio as a prototype wasn’t technically possible on the printing press – but it was too late.

One of the design leads had the unfortunate job of presenting the lame cup and a weak explanation to Howard – he was livid! The pitch was snake oil!

(By the way… up to this point I’m still thinking the original red cup is being shipped to stores…)

Imagine my surprise and frustration in learning that… not only was there a secret meeting… but the plan had been changed… And now it was my problem to deal with tens of thousands of cups (over 1/3 of the print run) featuring a WHITE?, flat, blah design!!

The Creative Solution

Now what?

We didn’t have time to pull the gray design, run and replace them with RED. The time period is hectic enough for the store partners (employees) to ask them to not use the shipments and order everyday cups… NOT using and destroying them would be a waste of paper and a sin. Especially for an environmentally minded company. Not an option.

I had the presses stopped and switched the design back to the original RED to fulfill the remainder of the print run. To avoid panic, I decided to communicate the switch from everyday cups, to white with gray design to the final RED as a strategic choice… a “phased approach.” It would appear that we purposely gradually rolled out the Holiday theme.

It worked!

Neither customers nor store partners knew the difference. Some loved the “approach” – commenting that a Christmas cup appearing prior to Thanksgiving felt too opportunistic and tacky…

In fact, the following year – I was asked if we were going to do a ‘phased cup roll’ like we had the previous year. The answer? No. Red it would be.

More about site…

In 2005, Starbucks created a short movie “Follow That Cup!” with the hopes of sneezing a viral campaign. It features the madcap (or is it madcab?) adventures of a forgotten Starbucks red cup riding atop a speeding, swerving taxicab – but not falling off. Forgetting that he left the cup on the roof of the car, the passenger looks shocked to still see it atop the car when they arrive at his destination. It has a strange abrupt ending, as the passenger reaches for it, a crazy Santa appears out of the blue, runs by, and steals the cup. It ends with the line… “Fear Santa.” (I don’t know why they’re so anti-Santa?) See the clip for yourself at Click the TV icon at the bottom of the screen. You’ll see a link called “Follow That Cup! (1 of 2)… click to view the movie.

TheRedCup site is meant to generate buzz, interest, and excitement for Starbucks as a destination for Holiday beverages and gifts…

I guess it’s working since we’re writing about it, huh?