In 2015, Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) found itself at the center of a controversy because its holiday season red cups were perceived by some as not being "Christmas-y" enough. The cups were simple, red with a company logo. They lacked traditional symbols of the season (like snowflakes or Santa Claus) that previous versions had featured.
"In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs," said Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks vice president of design and content, in an October 2015 press release. "This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."
That intent was taken by some as being an assault on Christmas. Most people recognize that the coffee chain, which has long been progressive on social issues, was seeking to be inclusive, but some customers did not see it that way. A similar backlash occurred earlier this month when Starbucks released green cups designed to celebrate unity in advance of the holiday season.
CEO Howard Schultz has never been shy about sharing his political opinions, even when they might alienate customers, but cup design is not about paying living wages, offering free college, or any of the other social issues he has championed. So, with its 2016 red cups, Starbucks has sought to offer something for everyone while making sure to celebrate Christmas along with the broader season.
What did Starbucks do?
For 2016, Starbucks invited its customers to design its red cups. The chain said that in the eight days it asked for submissions via Instagram, it received 1,200 individual submissions from 13 countries. It selected 13 winners after consulting customers via social media and has rolled out all the designs in the more than 25,000 Starbucks stores in 75 countries.
Some of the cups feature winter symbols while others have more traditional nods to Christmas. This is Starbucks blatantly trying to avoid controversy. "Should we just go back to last year and come out with a great red cup ... and perhaps start another firestorm?" Schultz said during an event revealing the cups. "We didn't think that was such a good idea."
This is a smart play
In the current charged political climate in the United States, Starbucks and its CEO will have plenty of opportunities to antagonize customers over political and social issues. That could be Schultz speaking out on health insurance or his having issues with the wages paid by other businesses. Holiday drink cups are simply not a place to court controversy, which was never the chain's intent when it went with the blank canvas design last year.
"We hope that this year's red holiday cup designs express the shared spirit of the holidays as told by our customers," said Global Chief Marketing Officer Sharon Rothstein in a press release.
With these red cups, the coffee chain will hopefully have pleased as many people as it can. That's the right play for shareholders, customers, and its employees. There will be places for Schultz to make statements, but he was smart to recognize that this was an area where appeasement is the right play.