What Starbucks' Red Cup Controversy Teaches Us About Negative PR

According to Starbucks, "within the first 48 hours of red Starbucks cups launching last year, a photo of a Starbucks holiday cup was shared on Instagram every 14 seconds."

A proven and repeatable success, the Starbucks holiday cup mastered a pattern of designs that consumers loved. Customers obsess about these cups so much, in fact, that the release of the Starbucks holiday cup has turned into an event where people will countdown until the cup is shown to the public.

So when the world's most famous coffee corporation decided to release a cup that was solid red this year, it didn't take long for uproar to ensue.

Starbucks's vice president of design and content explained the design choice by saying, "This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."

Sadly, customers weren't thrilled about the solid red cup. The backlash was immediate.

But while many people have criticized Starbucks for ruining Christmas and making a poor design choice, in actuality the Starbucks red cup decision is one of the best marketing shortcuts of the year.

Although the controversy for the red cup will die soon, it provides an amazing lesson to marketers on how and when to use negative PR to get attention.

1. When you've become an industry leader, negative PR is a perfect shortcut to use

When you have a market cap of $91 billion, it becomes harder to find shortcuts that lead to massive growth. So hard in fact, that even companies with billions of marketing dollars, such as Starbucks, struggle to stay in the minds of consumers and the press year after year. Thusthe question becomes how to stay relevant when you've already become the leader in your industry.

Easy: You use negativity to turn your consumers into marketers.

Starbucks knew that the red cup campaign would cause a giant stir among fans, but it also knew that celebrities would help fuel the fire by promoting the issue to millions. People like Ellen DeGeneres and Stephen Colbert spoke out about the controversy, instantly getting millions of followers talking about the campaign. And when you've already reached the level of success Starbucks has, celebrities talking about your company to millions is one of the few things that will ignite a surge in attention.

2. Great marketers know that negative PR and poor ethics should never mix

Similar to Starbucks, Bloomingdale's has had its own controversial marketing fiasco. And while I commend the marketing team at Starbucks for their strategy, I use Bloomingdale's as an example to highlight the importance of knowing what PR is good PR.

Starbucks's red cup campaign, while meaningful to some, is not a make or break event for most coffee drinkers. While loyal fans might be adding sad faces to their Starbucks's Instagram pictures, they'll still keep getting their vanilla lattes every morning on their way to work. For Starbucks, millions of new people marketing its products far outweighs some negative social media posts and upset coffee drinkers.

On the other hand, Bloomingdale'smarketing message about spiking "your best friend's eggnog when they're not looking" is not as easy to forget. Many women's rights groups have spoken out about the message, and retweets from celebrities opposed to the ad have flooded news feeds.

A celebrity making fun of people caring about the color of a cup is funny and lighthearted; a celebrity speaking out against a company supporting date rape is not.

According to data from the Justice Department, drug-facilitated rape is one of the most reported sexual assault offenses. Not only was Bloomingdale'smessage unethical, but it also struck the hearts of victims everywhere.

For a CMO, using negative PR should not be taken lightly. While hiccups like the Bloomingdale'sad can happen, double-checking that no ethical boundaries will becrossed is essential before using a negative PR strategy. Starbucks mastered this by knowing the red cup campaign wouldn't cause any serious harm to its customers. Bloomingdale's, unfortunately, did not.

3. When used properly, negative PR provides returns on investment year after year

A huge reason controversy is such a great shortcut for marketers is the residual value it has over time. For Starbucks, the excitement around its holiday cup release will be on top of everyone's mind next year. Celebrities will throw in their two cents again, and the marketing team at Starbucks will sit back and enjoy the free PR.

So whether you refuse to drink Starbucks now or you've taken notes on how to copy itsnegative PR shortcut, it's vital for you to learn how powerful a tool controversy can be for your marketing team. Done right, negative attention can ignite millions of people to become publishers for you year after year. The power and attention that gives, even to a corporation like Starbucks, is priceless.

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