What’s Not Being Said About the Starbucks Green Cup

If you’re anything like us, you’ve had somewhere between seven and 42 cups of dark, rich, inspiration-jogging coffee since November 1. If you purchased any of those javas from your neighborhood Starbucks, you’ve had a chance to inspect the now infamous Starbucks green cup for yourself. And, if you’ve spent any time on Twitter this past week, you’ve likely already seen that the feel-good message Starbucks intended with its single-line unity illustration got a little, well, tangled up.

Unity cup or holiday cup?

The main issue was that – despite a press release where Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Shultz introduced the green cup as “a reminder of our shared values, and the need to be good to each other,” and despite a lovely Twitter post complete with a green heart emoji – Starbucks failed to communicate. The coffee company did not clearly and directly announce that this special, limited time unity cup was NOT the dearly loved, much anticipated holiday cup...that usually comes out in early November. Bottom line: it wasn’t red. People got mad. Even when an employee leaked the real red cup.

Why? Consumers feel really connected to the Starbucks holiday cup (as evidenced by last year’s decision to go with a solid red design, which sparked similar outrage). Starbucks, although it had heartfelt intentions with the unity cup, didn’t meet its audience’s existing expectation – and misjudged how much its audience cared about that tradition.

Genuine unity or liberal political brainwashing?

Even once the unity message was clarified, people still got mad. Really mad. Just take a look at how consumers reacted on Twitter. It’s not a stretch to say that Starbucks is a liberal company. It’s a fact – one that its leadership is open about and proud of. In recent years, the company has taken a public stance in support of gay marriage and stricter gun control laws, as well as offered coverage for gender reassignment surgery as part of its employee benefits package. So it’s not a giant leap for people who oppose these issues to feel skeptical of a “unity” message delivered one week before a bitter election’s end. Especially when the liberal candidate’s slogan is “Stronger Together.”

Was Starbucks really trying to brainwash people into voting Democrat with its green cup? Gosh, that seems unlikely. But dealing with scathing backlash is a reality for any brand that decides to take a public stance on political issues.

OK, then, what should we be talking about?

The cup, of course! And how freakin’ cool the illustration is! Everyone keeps glossing over this “single line” blurb in the Starbucks press release, but really think about it from a visual standpoint. The entire cup is covered with more than 100 interesting-looking people, all drawn in one continuous stroke. Hats off to Illustrator Shogo Ota and the impressive artwork he developed that allows consumers to slow down a little and just sip coffee, create their own stories and spend time with the brand.

WhiteSpace Creative Director Eric Jacobs is a big proponent of using illustration in marketing campaigns. “Illustration humanizes a brand,” Eric said. “It can bring personality, feeling and warmth, and spark emotional connections that you can’t always achieve with other tactics.”

Interested in exploring original illustration in your next campaign? WhiteSpace can help! We can make sure you have the right set-up, too. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but without a few well-chosen ones, you could end up with a lot of explaining to do. (Of course, if you do set off an epic social media storm, we also do crisis management…and we’d love to talk about it over coffee!)

What do you think about the all the hub bub surrounding the unity cup? What about the cup itself?


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