Starbucks shows the power of silence during the red cup controversy


by Mike O’Brien

Starbucks’ plain red holiday cup has been oddly polarizing. But rather than defend itself against the controversy, the brand came out ahead by letting its fanbase do the talking.

In an odd way, doing nothing has been one of Starbucks’ best marketing moves lately.

Every year, Starbucks has a different holiday related red cup. In 2009 it was decorated with ornaments, and last year, it was snowflakes. This year, the coffee giant opted for a plain red with no designs, a move that – strangely – people found infuriating.

The idea behind the minimalist cups was a blank slate. But for Joshua Feuerstein, whose Facebook video went viral last week, Starbucks removed “Christmas from [its] cups because [it hates] Jesus.” For the first several days, Starbucks responded by not responding.

“The reason Starbucks isn’t saying anything is because such a large number of people are doing it for them,” says Dimitry Ioffe, chief executive (CEO) of Los Angeles agency TVGla.

Starbucks has been a big topic on social media all week. For every person criticizing Starbucks for “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” it seems like several others have been on hand to either defend the brand or to make fun of how absurd the whole thing is.

Even celebrities and other brands have joined in. Target is a fan of the red cups, while Rob Lowe is not, and Donald Trump even called on his supporters to boycott Starbucks. Dunkin Donuts also rode the wave by coming out with its own holiday cups decorated with the word “Joy,” as in, “Joy to the World, the Lord has come!”

One of Starbucks’ only statements on the matter was, “In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cup designs. This year, we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” Innocuous and sterile, Starbucks’ comment in no way acknowledged the social media outcry.

The plain aesthetic was in response to consumers’ tendency to doodle all over the cups. Thom Kennon, chief strategy officer at New York agency Pure, thinks that’s almost a metaphor for the way Starbucks’ fans feel about the brand.

“We all sort of inject or project ourselves into the brands we love. The reason we love some brands more than others is because they do a good job aligning their truth with ours. In this case, Starbucks provided a blank screen and people started filling it in with what matters to them,” says Kennon.

And to all the detractors of Starbucks’ detractors, what matters to them is Starbucks.


“What did Starbucks do?” adds Kennon. “Starbucks did nothing. It just had to remain quiet with a peaceful smile on its face, because it couldn’t have bought this kind of brand advertising for $100 million.”

Initially, Starbucks’ silence was most likely because the brand scoping the lay of the land before it took action. The conscious decision may have come later, once all the digital defenders started to come out of the woodwork. After all, if Starbucks is defending itself, consumers don’t need to.

Kennon says the brand’s fanbase has been so passionate to have “appropriated” the red cup controversy. Ioffe adds that by remaining silent, Starbucks ensured the conversation would remain focused.

“Right now, the [defenders] are only commenting on one voice,” he says, referring to those who are offended by the secular red cup. “If Starbucks commented, it would be presenting another voice. Then you’d have to stop and feel forced to make an opinion on Starbucks and the people commenting on Starbucks. Right now, it’s a pure ‘yes’ or ‘no’ issue.”

The entire red cup controversy has been something of an asterisk to the concept of “venomous virality.” We recommended brands to respond quickly and own up to their mistakes.

But in this case, did Starbucks make a mistake? Some say yes, but more say no.

Starbucks still sells its Christmas Blend coffee and decked its cups out in red and green (if you factor in the logo). Having a secular cup – not the first one, either, since snowmen and sledding aren’t Christmas-specific imagery – doesn’t necessarily equate with denouncing Christmas, a holiday that the brand’s Jewish CEO doesn’t even celebrate.

The brand came out on top by making a point not to engage with the controversy. This whole incident puts an addendum to the venomous virality tips: you don’t always have to weigh in.