Red Cup Pandemonium: How is Starbucks’ Red Cup Season still so successful each year?

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Pola Kasprzak

We saw it all the time in December. Red filled the streets, overflowed every trash can, and accented every hand walking into the school halls. The strongest scents in your local Starbucks became peppermint and gingerbread rather than pumpkin or vanilla. It was the true start of the holiday season, or as Starbucks themselves lovingly puts it, the beginning of Red Cup season. 

While the season officially starts in mid-November, most people typically associate the various holiday coffee flavors with the wintery notes of December’s Christmas spirits, and with flavors like the ultra-popular Peppermint Mocha or the newest addition of Iced Sugar Cookie Almond Milk latte, it’s not hard to see why. This feeling is added to by the holiday-themed red cups [which, fun fact, originally started out as purple], and the limited edition designs that show up on them each year, along with the limited edition reusable cups that show up as well.

It’s no secret that loads of other coffee companies do similar campaigns with holiday cups and flavors. So why is Starbucks’ version still so popular even with all these competitors and all these years later?

The main and simplest answer is this: dedication.

Starbucks continuously listens to their customer’s complaints and critiques, as well as their compliments, about the seasonal drinks each year, the date of release, and even the cup designs. 

Think back to 2015, when the company released completely plain red cups. Their intentions were to give their customers a chance to draw or doodle on the cups in order to create and add their own details on what they think the holiday season is to them. 

However, these intentions went unnoticed by a large group in the public, who went on a very vocal campaign about how Starbucks is “waging a war on Christmas” [whatever that’s supposed to mean]. However, a year later in 2016, Starbucks was able to successfully apply the idea of “showing what the community uses to represent the holidays” to their cups, and the designs, all community submissions, were a hit. Madalina Zimmerman for Backflip, a creative marketing studio, explains this switch to success in the best way I’ve seen; Starbucks could have pointed fingers in the failure of the 2015 cups, they could have tweeted back at the trolls and picked online fights with other corporations whom were mocking the error. They could have released no cup the following year. Instead, they took the criticism and re-evaluated, creating a successful and unforgettable Christmas marketing campaign for the 2016 cups.” 

Although this dedication is mainly for monetary gain and not just for the sake of the customers, it’s still incredible to witness. People tend to be drawn to companies that will listen to their feedback and pleas, and Starbucks has seemed to capitalize on this. This same idea of “companies that listen” can also get brands into trouble if they either take too long to respond to serious issues with their company or products, or simply provide unwanted “fixes” or content while ignoring bigger issues, an example of this being Youtube’s constant fixes to smaller issues on their site like the dislike button rather than focusing on the errors in their demonetization algorithm. 

Another of the biggest reasons behind these successes is how unique each year’s cups and drinks are. Starbucks consistently makes the effort to bring in new cup designs and messages each year, from the 2016 version that I mentioned before, to the 2021 50th Anniversary cup, specifically the reusable one made of 50% reusable content. 

Even if the drinks repeat a bit, such as keeping some of the most popular flavors like Peppermint Mocha, or adding one or more new flavors each year to keep the public’s attention on them.

There’s countless other reasons behind this marketing success, one of which is how Red Cup season is just something expected now, to a point where there’s even year-long countdowns that track how long it’ll be to each season [an example of this being https://www.countdowntoredcups.com/ ]. Another reason is simply how Starbucks ads are pretty much everywhere, from your spotify interruptions to the nearest billboard.

Overall, no matter if you’re a staunch coffee hater or an avid Starbucks enthusiast, you have to admire the marketing success of Red Cup Season each year. It’s pretty impressive to see an old concept keep bringing in fresh new ideas and customers each and every holiday season. :]


CITATION : Zimmerman, M. (n.d.). How Starbucks is winning Holiday marketing again. Backflip. Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://hello.letsbackflip.com/blog/2017/01/how-starbucks-is-winning-holiday-marketing-again