Starbucks Holiday Cups – Case Study in Marketing Failure



I never bought into the concept of a war on Christmas.  I celebrate Christmas.  It has been a privilege for me to learn about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other seasonal holidays.  And if others say Happy Holidays to me, I am glad to reciprocate.  What war?

But I also never understood Starbucks approach to not only Christmas but Hanukkah and other seasonal holidays. Why would you use all the colors and non-secular symbols of religious holidays to make money, but deny the religious nature of the holidays?

It seems a great way to anger your customers for no real reason.  This started in 2015 with the famous red cups released for the holidays devoid of even the secular symbols of the holidays.  In 2016 Starbucks again released the red cups along with some cups covered in secular holiday designs.  But, it once again tried to act as if its marketing campaign had not backfired.

Part of the problem is Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is well known for his mainstream but nevertheless liberal political views.  And many liberals are often hopelessly confused about the First Amendment, Christianity, Judaism, and religion in general.  While the First Amendment prevents the government from establishing a religion, it imposes no such obligation on businesses.  And Starbucks itself seems confused as it sells plenty of religious themed items, such as Advent calendars.

What Starbucks is really doing is making a marketing decision.  And with any marketing decision you have to ask yourself, what is your goal?  As best I can tell Starbucks is choosing to say that there is something wrong with Christians, Jews, and others expressing their holiday’s religious nature.

Perhaps they had a different intent, but the result is undeniable. Now Starbucks tries to deny this by saying it is trying to respect for all its customers. Apparently, all its customers except Christians and Jews.

It is easiest to see in an alternative marketing campaign.  What if Starbucks sought through its cups to promote religious understanding and tolerance?  Produce Christian and Jewish themed holiday cups in November and December.  But also seek out Muslim imams to develop for an appropriate time of the year cups featuring some of the Koran’s verses and designs.

I have no idea what would be appropriate for a Muslim themed cup. But, perhaps “As-salāmu ʿalaykum”. I hardly think “peace be upon you” could be offensive to anyone. Surely we could all use a richer understanding of Muslims than the two prevailing stereotypes of bomb toting machine gunners and professional victims filing lawsuits. Starbucks instead of repressing religion could stand up for it.

Seek out Sikhs and Hindus for similar cups.  Seek out Humanists and Atheists who are just as misunderstood. And of course, always have the traditional Starbucks cup available as an alternative.  Make the purpose of the marketing campaign a social responsibility theme of mutual understanding and respect.

There is also an additional bottom line reason for such a campaign.  During November and December I avoid Starbucks, specifically because of their marketing campaign.

If you want to make money off my religion, do not repress it.

What I have learned from that choice is there are many small chain and individual coffee shops. Further, many of them have better coffee at cheaper prices than Starbucks.

How many other Christians and Jews have made similar discoveries?  And while Starbucks stock price has continued to climb, what are the long term costs of being the brand that implies Christians and Jews should not publicly express their religions?  Starbucks could chose to ignore the holidays and not make money on them.  But if they are going to make money on the holidays, it is a mistake to repress their religious nature.

Bottom line it is a threat to shareholder value and dumb marketing.



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