Dynamic Marketing Communiqué

It’s the RED CUPS season! Check out how this brand has been dominating the holidays since 1997. [Fridays: Gorillas of Guerrilla Marketing]

December 24, 2021

Imagine this scenario:

It’s the holiday season. 

While others are already busy going out on vacations with their family and friends, you’re sitting in front of your laptop or desktop, busy with the year-end work rush.

After accomplishing all the work that needs to be done for the day, you realize you haven’t bought gifts for some of your peers yet. So, you decide to go out and do some last-minute Christmas shopping. 

As you shop for various items in the mall, you notice a significant number of people drinking coffee and other coffee-based beverages from red paper cups.

That’s when it hits you… 

It’s the RED CUPS season!

Starbucks is a multinational coffeehouse chain headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 1971, it is the largest coffeehouse chain in the world―with over 30,000 stores in 80 countries as of November 2021.

The Starbucks Red Cups 

Since 1997, the brand has been releasing annual themed cups to celebrate the Christmas season. This became a tradition that Starbucks fans look forward to as much as the seasonal drinks themselves. 

The cups have become a symbol for the Christmas holidays… and while Starbucks releases different designs every year, the cups maintain an overall iconic imagery with their bright red colors. 

Starbucks’ Most Talked About Cups

2015 was one of the most interesting years for the coffee company. 

During this year, Starbucks decided to go simple with a minimalist two-tone ombré cup design. It featured a top part in poppy red that transitioned to a soulful cranberry color towards the bottom part of the cup. 

Who would’ve thought that the simplest red cup design would generate the biggest controversy in the many years that the brand has been doing this tradition? 

Because of the cups’ plainness, a lot of people accused Starbucks of removing Christian imagery in pursuit of political correctness. The matter was heavily discussed on social media and even on talk shows hosted by famous personalities like Ellen Degeneres, Trevor Noah, and Stephen Colbert. 

Even former US President Donald Trump commented on the issue! 

Talk about how far this simple red cup issue went. 


Here’s the interesting thing about this controversy: Instead of getting boycotted, Starbucks garnered additional publicity that no other advertising campaign matched. 

The result? 

In the final quarter of 2015, Starbucks reported a consolidated net revenue of USD 5.4 billion. That’s 12% higher than the previous year’s USD 4.8 billion! 

Let’s now move on to the brand’s 2016 red cups… 

As a way to avoid any controversy like the previous year, Starbucks released holiday cups designed by 13 customers from 6 countries. These customers hand-drew the designs using white ink on a red background.

These cups sure looked more like the typical festive Christmas themes! 

Then, in Christmas 2017, Starbucks’ red cups once again sparked another controversy. 

It was in this year when the brand’s holiday cups featured a collage of presents, snowflakes, and arms of two people holding hands.

What was the issue this time? 

Many commented and said that the genders of the people holding hands in the design were not clear! 

To address the controversy, Starbucks released a statement that said: 

“We intentionally designed the cup so our customers can interpret it in their own way…” 

Starbucks didn’t intentionally design its cups to spark debates about gender equality. The brand only wanted to demonstrate the spirit of Christmas through its holiday cups’ designs! 

… and like what happened with the first red cups controversy, Christmas 2018 saw Starbucks toning down the previous year’s issue by releasing designs that featured candy canes, Christmas ornaments, and holly. 

The designs were an ode to the patterns of the previous years―the minimalist red is back but in a different style! 

Along with the festive designs, Starbucks promoted a limited edition reusable holiday cup that was given for FREE to customers who purchased the brand’s holiday drinks. Customers who then used these reusable cups to buy their drinks during the holidays got a USD 0.50 discount on seasonal beverages.

Talk about adding ways to boost consumer anticipation for the holidays and Starbucks’ holiday cups! 

Was Starbucks’ Red Cups strategy effective in the past years?

Whether you’re a Starbucks fan or not, there’s a good chance that these flashy red cups caught your eye in the past years. After all, these iconic items have a reputation of being viral. 

Below are some of the feats Starbucks achieved in the past years with the help of the holiday cups: 

  • In 2015, the red cups campaign was mentioned over 113,000 times on Twitter during its first 5 days. These mentions accumulated more than 2 billion Twitter impressions with 92% positive sentiments.
  • In 2017, the red cups campaign got nominated at the 9th annual Shorty Awards under the Food & Beverage category and the Multi-Platform Campaign category due to high engagement rates. 

It was also during this year when Starbucks shared over 230 social media content about the red cups across 30+ countries and reached 4 million audiences worldwide. 

  • When Starbucks started marketing reusable red cups in 2018, Ethisphere Institute, a company that defines and measures corporate ethical standards, named the brand as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies!” 

Well done, Starbucks! 

Through these red cups, the company is able to interact with its target market (letting them create and share their holiday cup designs), generate buzz, and encourage more consumers to buy Starbucks beverages. 

These are just some of the best results of an effective yearly guerrilla marketing campaign. 

While some of Starbucks’ holiday cups faced some controversies in the past years, that did not stop the company from releasing new designs every Christmas. 

The brand even used these iconic cups to generate more PR, boost sales, and make consumers more excited for the holidays. 

Like Starbucks, think of something that your customers will look forward to from your business every year. It could be a keychain, a pen, or some themed t-shirts―anything that will help your target market better recall your brand! 

You may also connect that particular object to the holidays or to any special occasion that your customers will relate to and participate in the most.

Who knows? That thing might just be your brand’s own “red cups,” which your target market will anticipate and be willing to interact with during a specific time of the year. 

That would benefit your brand beyond your expectations.

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! 🎄🎁

About The Dynamic Marketing Communiqué’s
“Fridays: Gorillas of Guerrilla Marketing”

Jay Conrad Levinson (1984) said that Guerrilla Marketing “works because it’s simple to appreciate, easy to execute, and inexpensive.”

Guerrilla Marketing is unconventional.

Looking beyond the traditional ways of advertising, marketers, and advertisers need to spice things up in order for their brand to have campaigns that not only make an impact but also stick to their target market’s mind.

Guerrilla Marketing usually aims to have direct contact with consumers.

This type of direct contact should spark an emotional reaction that leads to consumers effectively remembering the brand.

It’s about making a big impression and making that impression last a long time (if not forever).

Guerrilla Marketing can be inexpensive.

The effect of this is being able to create a buzz around the brand, and the strategy used to market it. Almost everything is passed around through word-of-mouth.

Word-of-mouth is one of the greatest outcomes and it usually doesn’t cost anything.

This is every business’ or brand’s dream!

Every Friday, we publish tips, examples, and other useful content on unconventional ways of marketing and promotion.

Learn more about how to grab your target market’s attention and make an amazing first and lasting impression without having to spend a lot of money.

Businesses don’t really need to spend much for a guerrilla campaign. You do not need a big budget to be successful. You just need creativity and a good imagination.

Hope you’ve found this week’s guerrilla marketing insight interesting and helpful.

Stay tuned for next Friday’s Gorillas of Guerrilla!


Kyle Yu 
Head of Marketing 
Valens Dynamic Marketing Capabilities
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