First some background: For many years, Starbucks has replaced its traditional coffee containers with holiday-themed ones for the final two calendar months. Past images have been rather innocuous, for instance: snowmen, reindeer, snowflakes, carolers, etc. Other than one cup that included a Christmas tree, the graphics have been rather generic and not directly connected to Christmas.
So, when Starbucks reprised its holiday tradition just a couple weeks ago, some were surprised that the new cups contained no images. Instead, they utilize a simple, unadorned red coloring that’s brighter toward the top and darkens as it declines to the base. Other than the seasonal color, there’s no connection to Christmas or any other holiday.
When most restaurants alter their paper products no one notices, or at best the change prompts mild curiosity, e.g., “What’s different about this?” or “I wonder why they changed these.” As suggested above, however, some reactions to the new Starbucks’ cups have been severe, such as those claiming that Starbucks hates Jesus or that the company aims to take Christ out of Christmas.
In the meantime, one of Starbucks’ biggest coffee competitors, Dunkin’ Donuts, has introduced its own holiday cups, which are comparably more festive. Dunkin’s white cups feature the word “Joy” in large letters, encircled by evergreen branches. For some, the Dunkin’ design coveys more of the spirit of the holidays; although, it’s hard to claim that even this cup points specifically to Christmas. While joy is a term that has unique, positive connotations for Christians, it’s also a sentiment shared by many others, including those with no faith commitment.
So, the key issue remains: whether Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks should serve coffee in cups that more clearly connote Christmas. Here are some potentially helpful questions to consider in discerning the dispute:
- What specific religious responsibilities do publicly held companies like Starbucks Corporation and Dunkin’ Brands have, given that they answer to a wide variety of stakeholders who represent many different spiritual commitments as well as nonreligious perspectives?
- How would Christians feel about drinking coffee from cups that contained images from other faiths, e.g., Islam, Buddhism, etc.?
- If companies could sell more coffee by simply imprinting their cups with explicit religious images (e.g., a cross, Shield of David, crescent moon and star), would we want them to do so?
- Is it right for companies to profit from the gratuitous use of religious images?
- Is it respectful to place religious symbols on common consumables, including paper packaging that’s impertinently discarded?
- To what extent should the faithful look to commercial products for their religious inspiration?
Answering these questions can easily lead one to conclude that it’s not essential for either Dunkin’ or Starbucks to promote Christmas on their coffee cups. In fact, in some ways doing so may be undesirable.
As such, it’s hard to call Starbucks’ plain red cups ineffective marketing. Although some reactions have been harsh, most people seem to downplay the decision, while some even embrace it. Furthermore, the considerable publicity the story has spawned will likely cause the coffee retailer to be even more top-of-mind, increasing sales and adding stakeholder value.
Similarly, it’s difficult to say that Starbucks’ decision has compromised societal values. In fact, in keeping with the questions above, Starbucks’ red cups might be viewed as showing respect to more people, including Christians. An increase in stakeholder value and support of societal values, therefore, makes Starbucks’ strategy look like “Mindful Marketing.”