The riddle of the red cup: How Starbucks made a reusable container a holiday tradition

·5 min read

They started as magenta, have changed designs each year, have slogans that have been shared earnestly and mocked by the Twittersphere, have been hijacked as political and cultural talking points, have had their highly-anticipated release dates criticized as just too early to start the holiday season and much more.

But regardless of whatever storyline surrounds them each year, one generally remains: loyal customers often swarm the coffee chain each year on the release date of Starbucks' red holiday cups.

So what is it about the cups that can inspire so many different reactions and loyalty from their customers? Maybe it is that it’s one of those official markers of the holiday season, much like the first holiday music on the radio.

“We’re inviting everyone to color in the holidays in a way that’s meaningful to them,” Leanne Fremar, executive creative director for Starbucks, said in a 2017 post about the history of the cups on Starbucks' website.

But experts who spoke to USA TODAY said it wasn't quite that simple.

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'Scarcity is a powerful tool'

Claudia Townsend, a professor of marketing at the University of Miami, said there’s a lot that the coffee chain has been able to encapsulate in a simple cup.

“Scarcity is a very powerful tool,” she said. “You can think about a pumpkin spice latte and things like that. Obviously, they could have it all year but they very strategically limit when it's available which, really, it is innate in us to want something that’s more scarce. So the fact that it’s only available in the holiday season heightens its value in our minds.”

And by changing it every year, they’ve made something that’s a collectible and likely for some customers, Townsend said, an annual tradition.

“The fact that they change it every year makes it that you come back again and again,” she said. “It’s really about connecting you to the brand and then every time you use the cup, not only are you reminded of the brand, you’re reminded of all of the warm and fuzzy feelings you had around the holiday season. By connecting themselves to the holiday they get the warm glow of the holiday season reflecting on them.”

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Not an overnight sensation

Tim Calkins, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School, said the red cup wasn’t an overnight sensation – it grew over the years and caught on, partially because the company just stuck with it and it became part of the season.

"Now we look at it as such a remarkable marketing coup," he said. "But at the beginning that wasn't the plan. There was no great vision that the Starbucks would red cup would become what it would become. This is really the story of Starbucks learning and seeing that something resonated."

The early success of the holiday cup, he says, goes back to that it was just something different than what was normally offered. And experts said the continued success was that they made it something that consumers looked forward to or expected each holiday season.

“People really notice it and they appreciate it and it becomes part of the season,” he said. “So really this is a story of a company seeing that something was really working and connecting with people and sticking with it.”

For Starbucks, he said, it's great because it's not just a cup, it's seasonal drinks and seasonal offerings. "But it is very powerful and it is something that people really enjoy and appreciate and as a result, it's become a huge focus. You wouldn't think a coffee cup gets as much attention as this holiday cup gets each year."

And that, he thinks, became even more important in the pandemic when the red cup represented in some cases a rare chance to get out of the house and go to Starbucks to get that holiday cup.

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'This feels like a mark of normalcy'

As has to be done in every story about the Starbucks holiday cup, this is where we mention that Starbucks cups have been controversial at times – in 2015, critics wondered if it was leaning too far away from specifically being focused on Christmas and in 2016, Donald Trump suggested boycotting the brand and the designs have been analyzed for a potential spot in the “war on Christmas” talking points. But that wouldn’t happen, Calkins said, on some level, if people didn’t care a lot about the cups.

"The reason they care a lot is because it's become a part of the season," he said, adding that it was "distinctive and important" to a lot of people.

The controversy seemed to quiet down after 2016. And this year, University of Maryland Clinical Professor of Marketing Hank Boyd III said the red cup represents something almost “encouraging” that we’re close to being back together after what’s been a terrible nearly two years.

“Anything that feels like a mark of normalcy, we’re just like ‘welcome, please come in.’” he said. “So I think they’re the beneficiaries of this.”

Will this be a holiday tradition forever?

The Starbucks holiday cup celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, and it shows no sign of slowing down. So will we be talking about Starbucks holiday cups on an annual basis forever?

“It’s hard to tell. It seems like it resonates with people, establishes goodwill that you’re a good corporate citizen. I love that they’re incorporating that 50 percent of the cup is recycled material so we can be green and a good corporate citizen,” Boyd said. “So yeah as long as folks are resonating with it and happy with it, you just keep on going.”

After all, he said, as a marketer, finding something that cuts through the clutter, has a consistent message, builds the brand and just catches on is so difficult.

“Once it’s there, you don’t want to tinker with it or mess with it,” he said. “If it’s doing you well, you just keep it intact and keep on marching.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Starbucks' reusable red holiday cup became a seasonal staple