Back in 2015, Starbucks landed in more hot water than a tea bag after the company debuted its new holiday cup, which prompted an angry divide among some consumers. Starbucks’ website describes the 2015 cup as “a two-toned ombré design, with a bright poppy color on top that morphed into a darker cranberry below” — or, to put it another way, red.
Although the plain red cups caused an uproar three years ago, Starbucks has released special seasonal cups since 1997, many of which sparked no controversy — as one might expect from paper coffee cups that disappear after two months. Nonetheless, Starbucks cups have become a topic of serious holiday discussion over the years. Take a look at how the coffee giant has handled the debate over its limited-edition drinks each year.
1997-2014: An Early History of Starbucks' Holiday Cups
Starbucks has offered up a special cup each holiday season since 1997. Those first cups over 20 years ago were “adorned with hand-drawn holly and swirls dotted with tiny coffee beans … in one of four jewel-toned hues.”
Successive years would feature a number of different designs, but Starbucks usually chose simple seasonal themes featuring winter imagery in red and white color schemes, with some exceptions. Somehow, America managed to march on without controversy, year after year, between 1997 to 2014.
2015: Anger Erupts Over Plain Red Cups
If you’re seeking the “patient zero” of seasonal coffee cup rage, look no further than evangelist Joshua Feuerstein, whose video rant about the cups prompted the original controversy. In the video — posted to Feuerstein’s Facebook page — he accused the company of wanting to “take Christ and Christmas off of their brand-new cups,” which was why they were “just plain red.”
Aside from failing to note the “bright poppy color on top that morphed into a darker cranberry,” Feuerstein also appeared to misremember the past holiday cups — none of which featured any specific religious figure or holiday, unless you count the ornaments reading “hope,” “wish” and “love” on the 2009 cup.
Overall, the controversy surrounding the 2015 cup helped turn a normally innocuous unveiling into cable news fodder — though the publicity probably didn’t hurt Starbucks’ net worth.
Without exit polls at Starbucks stores, it’s impossible to know exactly how much the controversy motivated customers one way or another. However, it would seem as though the lack of religious messaging didn’t stop too many people from returning to the Seattle-based coffee giant. Starbucks experienced a 9 percent year-over-year increase in U.S. sales for the last three months of 2015 — slightly higher than the 8 percent recorded globally.
2016: Starbucks Releases Over a Dozen Cups
If the higher-ups at Starbucks were rattled by the public outcry in 2015, their strategy for 2016 was to simply flood their critics with different holiday cups. In total, Starbucks had 14 seasonal cups for the year, 13 of which were user-submitted designs from six different countries that built on the plain red cups of 2015.
However, the one cup issued by Starbucks itself in 2016 still managed to stir some controversy — and not because it went with green. The design was a mosaic of hundreds of different people drawn in a single line, which was meant to symbolize unity. It proved to be anything but unifying in the end. The 2016 cup provoked a negative response on social media because of the one person it didn’t feature: Jesus.
Despite the Twitter campaign calling out Starbucks for not having enough Christ in its holiday branding, comparable store sales for the three months ending Jan. 1, 2017, climbed by 3 percent globally and in the Americas — including a 6 percent jump in China. All that business prompted a 7 percent increase in net revenues, demonstrating that sometimes the angry people on Twitter don’t actually speak for everyone.
2017: BuzzFeed Article Fans the Flames
The 2017 design for the holiday cup was mostly white but featured some unmistakable Christmas images such as wrapped gifts and a tree with ornaments. There was also an image of holding hands, potentially implying a desire for the cups to generate love and unity this time around.
Well, it was a nice thought, but Starbucks didn’t get any closer to a holiday free of cup controversy. An article from BuzzFeed took note that a number of people on social media had decided the hands were “gay” — despite a lack of any indication of gender or sexuality on either hand.
Of course, the BuzzFeed article got enough notice that conservative media outlets picked up on it, and some pundits accused the company of promoting a “gay agenda campaign.”
When Starbucks reported its earnings for the final three months of 2017, same-store sales were up 2 percent in the Americas on the back of a 2 percent increase in the size of an average ticket — not to mention a 6 percent boost in net revenues resulted in a record $6.1 billion worldwide. The trend appears to be that cup controversies have no significant impact on Starbucks’ bottom line.
If you’re a consumer who contributes heavily to the coffee giant’s sales, check out the best and worst deals at Starbucks.
2018: New Reusable Cups Run Out
This year, Starbucks appeared to steer clear of controversy with its holiday cup designs, opting for four different patterns in red and green.
However, the absence of anger surrounding its disposable cups didn’t mean that the company was off the hook. The plain red cup design that started it all was back — in the form of a reusable cup that was handed out for free on Nov. 2. Customers who were able to snag one will get 50 cents off medium-size holiday drinks after 2 p.m. from Nov. 3 through Jan. 7.
But then, Starbucks ran out. In some cases, the reusable cups became unavailable almost immediately after opening, prompting some customers to take to Twitter and — you guessed it — express their anger over the red cups. This time, at least it was because people wanted more of them.
Find out how to cut your Starbucks bill without giving up your coffee.
More on Saving Money During the Holidays
- Tipping Etiquette You Don’t Know About — But Should — This Holiday
- 30 Gift-Giving Ideas for Tight Budgets
- Save $20,000 This Year With These 20 Hacks
- Watch: How to Get Free Stuff
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