Starbucks And The Red Cup Phenomenon

They’re here. Starbucks just released their iconic red cups for this year’s holiday season. You know, the ones filled with Peppermint Mochas and Gingerbread Lattes.

On Saturday, I received an email in my inbox that simply read: “Your first red cup is waiting.”

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Perhaps you received the same thing and swung by Starbucks over the weekend, or maybe you’re protesting these Winter holiday marketing moves that overshadow Thanksgiving. Regardless of your reaction, when it comes to those red cups, Starbucks is doing something right.

After experiencing a decrease in 2013 holiday sales, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz shared,

Holiday 2013 witnessed a seismic shift in consumer behavior in which many traditional brick-and-mortar retailers experienced a decline in foot traffic compared to significant growth in online shopping… Since that time, we have been focused on radically redefining the Starbucks retail experience for our partners, customers and stores.

And the signature red cup is one of the many ways Starbucks will create the holiday experience for customers this season. It isn’t simply about the coffee it contains – it’s about the joy and anticipation of the holidays, the customer experience, and how Starbucks capitalizes on the intersection of the two.

Love ’em or hate ’em, there are several key marketing lessons we can derive from this coffee retailer’s holiday campaign.

Create Buzz

If you were on Twitter or Instagram this weekend, you probably saw #redcups. The buzz surrounding the timely offer is as important as the product – Starbucks easily sparked conversation and encouraged shareable content by introducing a strong, recognizable hashtag.

In addition to the hashtag, Starbucks kicked off a three-day Instagram competition to win limited edition Sterling Silver Starbucks cards. From November 1-3, if you posted an Instagram of your red cup with a caption that included #redcups, you were entered to win – that very simple contest effectively created a buzz of excitement surrounding the return of the holiday season, and, of course, Starbucks’ holiday concoctions.

Celebrate Tradition

Traditions, by nature, encompass both story and emotion, and Starbucks has recognized the importance of the two together.

Several years ago, we talked about the “red cup experience”, and asked,

What are the emotions you want your customers to feel with every transaction?

Undoubtedly, there were many conversations around how Starbucks could effectively translate the tastes and smells of their creations into warm reminders of the holidays – like fir trees trimmed with popcorn and tinsel, and kitchens overflowing with the sweet aroma of cinnamon and cookies.

In seemingly effortless fashion, they found a way to tap into these powerful memories and create a tradition of their own.

When the cups turn red at Starbucks, that’s one of the first cues that the holidays are upon us. The emotional connection that our store partners (employees) have when they open that first box of the red cups and start using them that first day, and the emotional connection they see from their customers, that’s what we strive for. They see that surprise and excitement: ‘Oh, the red cups are at Starbucks!’ It’s really special and all of us in the studio feel privileged to do the work that can create such an emotional moment and connection in our stores between our partners and our customers.

Terry Davenport, SVP of Starbucks Global Brand and Creative Studios

The red cups reappear each November, and with that, the holiday season begins. Wildly anticipated by Starbucks customers across the globe, there’s even a Red Cup Countdown website dedicated entirely to the arrival of these colored containers.  

By creating a campaign that keeps the stories and emotions of their customers in mind, the brand walks away with something more powerful than profit – a loyal customer base who genuinely wants to participate in their ritual, every year.

Offer an Experience

It’s remarkable how a simple red paper cup can create such a strong energy and generate memories around beloved customs.

What experiences are you creating each day for your customers? Identify ways can you strengthen their connection to your brand through interactions with your products. Create conversation and celebrate the stories and traditions that your customers hold dear. Their reactions might surprise you.

For the sake of transparency, I’m currently sitting in Starbucks sipping from a you-know-what. And somehow, seeing everyone laughing and whispering, red cups in hand, feels warmer and more joyous than before. Props, Starbucks. It’s not even December, and I’m ready to light a fire and hang the stockings.

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