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Why Everyone Fell for the Starbucks Red Cup Marketing Ploy


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A few times a year, my career as a marketer and creative gives me some insight into a world that constantly bamboozles the majority our society. Marketers have one job — identify an audience, get their attention, keep them engaged and eventually lead them down a purchase pipeline. Every piece of the puzzle is meticulously planned and executed to do just that. So, in the event that Starbucks redesigns their holiday cup into a simple red statement — a few things are happening:

Starbucks knows their target audience

This might be a shocker — but there’s a chance that you’re not in it. The old adage “everyone is not your audience” actually rings true for coffee corporations as much as it does small mom and pop shops. If someone is offended by the new cup, it’s likely that the brand has determined that those people don’t fully align with its target audience. The reaction of that grouping is not of overwhelming concern because, at the end of the day, their target audience is completely on board with their message. This brilliant brand is catering to the audience that will make them money — and it happens to be an audience that responds to current design trends.

Starbuck red cup

Design, in general, is getting pretty basic

Design trends, on a large level, have taken a turn toward the simple. They’ve been heading that direction for quite awhile. Whether the consumer realizes it or not — those that fall into the Starbucks target audience are responding more consistently to simple, clean design. Place snapshots of any of their products side-by-side and you can easily see how the brand’s visuals have been evolving in this way for years — logo included!

More bang for the marketing buck

Every year, Starbucks changes their holiday cup and those that are truly engaged in the monumental event will post a Facebook photo or send a quick tweet sharing their joy. The cup has changed and some excitement builds, but eventually, everything settles back to the norm and we go on sipping our bitter brew.

However, when Starbucks “ruins Christmas,” everyone must get involved in the outrage. Articles are written. Hashtags are trending. Everyone has an opinion and everyone wants to share it — whether they drink coffee or not. This is how a brand grows.

Starbucks red cup

Even when you’ve identified your target audience, there’s a need to reach new, untapped corners of the market. One way of doing this is to shake things up a bit and get your non-typical audience talking about you. Instead of a subtle week of “yay, new cup!” posts, Starbucks will now ride out the entire holiday season on a surge of conversation that is centered around their brand. Some will criticize. Others will defend. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because you’re talking about Starbucks and no other coffee brand during the biggest sales season of the year. Social media networks love this. So do search engines. And the brand will be rewarded, handsomely, by the algorithms that run the Internet.

Need more proof? Coffee cups are one of the most commonly gifted items through the holiday season. Try Googling any reference to “holiday coffee,” “coffee cups” or “holiday coffee gifts.” Starbucks is there — front and center — and they only have you and the buzz you’ve helped them to create to thank for it.

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