A Seattle brand strategist says, “I think Howard Schultz and his team are sitting back in their chairs and high-fiving each other,” while the social-media debate rages over whether the red cups are Christmassy enough. Or whether it even matters.
The fact that people even care what the Starbucks’ holiday cup looks like is a testament to at least one thing: The coffee giant has successfully interwoven its brand into the very fabric, culture and history of humankind, says David Lemley of Seattle’s Retail Voodoo, a brand-strategy and creative-marketing company.
“I think Howard Schultz and his team are sitting back in their chairs and high-fiving each other, ’cause they’re the good guys and buzz is buzz,” said Lemley, who worked with Starbucks in the 1990s to build the now-internationally recognized brand.
Lemley says the increasingly spare and simplified design of both the year-round Starbucks logo and the holiday cup are intentional.
Twenty years ago, brand strategists for the company — including Lemley — were talking about how words could eventually be stripped from the logo to make it more universal.
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The company’s crowned mermaid has become “the universal symbol for coffee,” said Lemley, who no longer works with Starbucks. “At the airport, there’s the women’s restroom, the men’s restroom and the coffee. You don’t have to read, no words are needed and even on Mars, you would know that was the symbol for coffee.”
The “brewhaha” started earlier this week when Starbucks unveiled its holiday cup for the 2015 winter season.
In years past, the cups — which have always had a red background — have featured a variety of designs, including snowflakes and reindeer.
This year, however, the company chose to go with a simple, two-toned red that fades from bright on top to deep at the base.
That has brought accusations that the company was sending an anti-Christmas message.
Former TV and radio evangelist Joshua Feuerstein shared several posts with his 1.8 million Facebook friends and followers, calling for a boycott of Starbucks.
“Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus …” he wrote in a Nov. 5 post.
Also on Facebook, he posted a video saying, “Did you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups? That’s why they are just plain red.”
He helped spark a social-media frenzy that went viral and even reached into politics when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump joined the fray and discussed a possible boycott.
Lemley said he is not sure how Feuerstein came to the conclusion that Starbucks was anti-Christmas, but said, “Some people are always looking for something to rail against.”
Lemley noted that the company has a “Christmas Blend” coffee and was also the first to introduce the now-ubiquitous concept of a holiday cup.
He said, “The company has done such a fantastic job of integrating their brand into the culture that people now have an emotional reaction to the idea of going out and getting their lattes in a red cup to celebrate winter and kick off the holidays.”
Will Slabaugh, a director at a financial-services firm, told CNBC that the issue was a nonissue from purely business perspective. He said, “It’s blown up on social media among a select group of consumers and non-consumers that likely won’t change their habits.”
Starbucks did not return requests for comments on Tuesday morning, but Lemley said he’s pretty sure no one is too worried.
“The evolution to the pure red cup is brilliant. When you are a global phenomenon, you don’t need words,” he said.
That said, however, Lemley expects Starbucks to come up with something new next year.
“They want people to be surprised,” he said. “Energy is the name of the game.”