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The real winner in Starbucks red-cup controversy

This week's Starbucks red-cup controversy should become a future MBA case study on how business can get into the consumers' subconscious. Without spending a dime on advertising, PR or even lifting a cup, Starbucks got its brand into the conversation of nearly every American.

Starbucks Red Holiday Cups
Source: Starbucks
Starbucks Red Holiday Cups

Facebook, Twitter, presidential candidates, celebrities, artists, even the passive couch potatoes all seemed to have an opinion — good or bad — on why Starbucks was or wasn't the Grinch who stole Christmas. If you believe Google, there are now 9.2 million news stories on the "Starbucks red cup controversy." That's a lot of free publicity.

There's an outdated cliché among entrepreneurs that all publicity is good publicity, but what about when customers threaten to boycott your product? Is it still good publicity?

All publicity is not always good publicity but in this case — even with these threatened boycotts — this is a pure PR coup for Starbucks. It's lightning in a bottle.

Their crisis-communications team might be in a huddle trying to manage "the story" and their finance team might be assessing how this will impact quarterly earnings, but as Demi Lovato so eloquently Tweeted, "why do we care this much about a cup....??"

This Starbucks red-cup controversy isn't about Christmas or publicity. It's about tapping into a memory that we all yearn for. Regardless of whether you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or agnostic, we all live for memories. It's why we document our children's lives and write stories. We want to remember what we had yesterday. It's at the root of a successful brand connection.

In our small office, our team tried to remember what last year's Starbucks Christmas cup looked like.

Did it have "Merry Christmas" on it? Did it have snowflakes? Was there a snowman? Because everyone associates snow with Christmas.

No one remembered.

But in a month or year from now, everyone in our office will remember that Starbucks conversation – and that is the beauty of this divinely aligned PR coup.

In the world of PR, I tell potential clients there is always a PR machine behind the biggest publicity campaigns that get into our subconscious. However, in this situation, I seriously doubt Starbucks had the vision, conviction or courage to take on Christmas. I suspect no one in corporate saw this coming. I doubt the red-cup controversy was born in a PR room.

So what should Starbucks do now that the world is on fire over a red cup?

Absolutely nothing.


Just sit back and watch the rest of America debate and converse on why we love or hate this new red cup. And just when the debate is about over, which will be next week, I would bet Starbucks management will be smart enough to introduce a new holiday-themed cup. And not because Starbucks wants to appease anyone who believes in Christ.

They will introduce a new holiday coffee cup because the people running Starbucks are smart. They know the importance of staying relevant and getting into the conversation. But unfortunately for Starbucks, lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place. The next red cup unveiling will require a little PR genius to fool us twice.


Commentary by Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public relations firm that has run media and branding campaigns for politicians,tech start-ups, financial firms, nonprofits and companies. He's also author of the book, "Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media." Follow him on Twitter @markmacias.