December – the month where it’s officially cold, it’s “acceptable” to listen to Christmas music and when Starbucks serves your regular cup of coffee in an extra-special, colorful cup that somehow makes your coffee taste SO much better!

In theory, all of the above sounds wonderful, but as of last year, Starbucks has been receiving a ton of criticism over their holiday-inspired cups – a PR nightmare, or dream?

For those that have forgotten “Red Cup Gate,” last year Starbucks released a plain red cup and consumers were enraged as they felt that by removing the snowflakes, trees, and ornaments Starbucks was aiming to destroy Christmas (LOL). Now fast-forward to this year – November 1st comes and ta-da… a GREEN cup with a drawing of people using a continuous line and consumers still aren’t happy. Apparently, this year’s design was too “political” and wasn’t as Christmas-y as they’d like.

Photos: Courtesy of Starbucks
Photos: Courtesy of Starbucks

I come from a Public Relations background, where controversy and crisis is avoided at all costs, especially if said controversy is spreading virally (gives me anxiety just thinking about it). But as I take a step back from the holiday cup debacle that Starbucks can’t get away from apparently, I am beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, this is some of the best (free) PR they’ve had. Hear me out:

Social Media – both last year and this year’s cup designs have spread virally on social media. In 2015, the red cup was as widely talked about as the famous blue/white dress. Now this year, people were heading to social media in anticipation – not one post had to be sponsored, not one.

Free Coverage – in addition to people taking to social media, celebrities and influencers were also talking about the cup designs including The Today Show, CNN, and Stephen Colbert and there were millions of stories to be found on Google. That’s free publicity that the team at Starbucks didn’t have to work for – just sit back and sip on their sugar-free, skinny vanilla mocha latte with no foam.

Sales – Starbucks reported very minimal decrease in sales from both cup controversies. People needed their Peppermint Mochas despite what they felt about the design.

Now, I wouldn’t advise a client to ignite a controversy like this to gain free publicity because we all know of the well-oiled PR machine behind most campaigns, but I will say, this was the best PR campaign I’ve seen in a while – Starbucks vs. Christmas.