Saturday, November 11, 2017

Starbucks Red Cups (2015)

Starbucks Red Cup Controversy of 2015

The evolution of the Starbucks Red cup design

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Joshua Feurenstein: The man who
posted the facebook video about the
red cup.

Starbucks is one of the leading coffee shops in the world with over 23,000 stores across 68 countries. Although Starbucks is most commonly known for their high quality coffee at a pretty hefty price compared to competitors, they were involved in a huge controversy in 2015 regarding their winter themed cups. Starting in 1997 Starbucks started releasing winter seasoned cups, mostly pertaining to the Christmas holiday. Many cups featured reindeer, snowman, ornaments, snowflakes, and other things that make you think about the holiday season. This theme came to a halt in 2015 when the cup was released and it was a plain red cup. Starbucks intent was for customers to create their own story on the cup with a sharpie or pen. It was supposed to be a new innovative cup but their new idea took a turn for the worst when people started to react and the internet took a story and blew it way out of proportion. It all started with a American englavist named Joshua Feurenstein who posted a video on Facebook which soon got over 15 million views and over 500,000 shares. This video contained this man in an uproar saying that Christmas was cancelled and this is a an attack against the Christians. “Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ, and Christmas, off of their brand-new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red,”, a quote from Feurenstein in the video. Starbucks made the mistake of not addressing this situation immediately. It is hard to predict how the customers would react with the new plain cup design, or lack of design, but when things took a turn for the worse they did not react well. The cups were released on November first, the video was posted on November fifth, and Starbucks didn't release a statement regarding the controversy until 3 days later on the eighth of November. By that time the video had reached millions and millions of likes and shares, the word had gotten out to people, and many were already offended. If Starbucks had released a statement regarding their intentions of the plain cup sooner, it may have not even become a controversy and people wouldn't have been so outraged. This is a prime example of how social media can be such a huge source of news, and blow things so far out of proportion that it hurts companies, or people who didn't really have bad intentions. 

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Starbucks employees (stakeholders) preparing drinks

Stakeholders are people who affect or are affected by a company’s actions. So in this case any customer who is offended by the Starbucks cups are stakeholders in this controversy. Stakeholders could also be anyone who bought a drink from Starbucks while the red cups were being used in the holiday season. They are a stakeholder because they are buying a product from this company and they could have chosen to buy coffee somewhere else and may begin to boycott Starbucks because of the controversy. Despite the red cup controversy causing such an uproar and generally having their name attached to a negative video and poor publicity, sales rose 9% in the last three months of 2015(when the controversy occurred). So the stockholders and Starbucks itself would be stakeholders but it wasn't a negative affect unlike many of the other stakeholders. I think that employees would also be shareholders because they got a lot of negativity towards them not saying merry Christmas when customers come in, and having a bad rep because they work at a company that took the Christmas spirit tradition out of the cups. I'd say the people most affected would be the christians who feel deeply offended by Starbucks actions of removing the Christmas spirit from the cups that they release every year during the holiday season. 


Individualism is the theory that pushes maximizing your profits as much as possible without breaking the law. No laws were broken by Starbucks during this controversy and they did end up increasing their profits by 9% during the last 3 months. During the company earning call in January of 2016 the CEO noted that it was by far the most successful holiday season they had thus far. The attention that rose from the video may have harmed some peoples feelings but it sure didn't harm Starbucks revenue. Starbucks intention was to release a new different holiday cup to get people to be creative and have fun while drinking their hot coffees in the chilly winter months. I think Starbucks intentions were to maximize their profits and the people who felt highly offended about the idea took it a little too far. They soon offended many people who are religiously affiliated with the Christian faith and felt that it was an attack against them. From an individualistic standpoint, Starbucks did not break any laws during this controversy and they did intend and successfully maximize their profits so they would be deemed to be ethical by an individualistic person.  
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The Starbucks logo on a sign in front of a store


They theory of utilitarianism is to maximize the good of a situation. If the outcome is good, and it brings happiness and pleasure, then the utilitarians would be satisfied. This was definitely not the case in this controversy as many people were outraged by Starbucks decision to create the cups. Even though Starbucks came out with an apology 3 days later, it was too late. The video that 15 million people had seen had already made a huge impact on peoples perceptions on the company. I don't believe that many people will boycott Starbucks forever because of this holiday cup mishap but I think many boycotted during the 2015 red cup season. Many christians and other people of various religions felt that Starbucks was taking away Christmas from them and genuinely felt personally attacked. The man in the video that received millions of views and likes was highly offended. He was so offended that he started a small movement of people saying "Merry Christmas", when asked their names so the baristas were forced to write it on their cups. The outcome was not good because people were offended, and even if they weren't offended, it still lacked holiday spirit in the cups that many people look forward to every year. Spreading holiday cheer through cups was one of Starbucks best ideas, but in 2015, they did not satisfy the consumers. Although Starbucks tried to make good come out of the situation, they did not succeed and there for did not act by the utilitarian theory very well. The Utilitarians would view Starbucks as being very unethical.
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The red cup released in November 2015


The Kantian theory involves respecting others and acting rationally. I think that Starbucks did not intend on disrespecting others but the outcome of taking away the Christmas themed cups that had been issued year after year did not respect people who celebrate Christmas. Many people also spoke about not feeling respected when they encouraged their employees to not use phrases like Merry Christmas when speaking to customers and to create an inclusive environment. Some also took it another step and preached that it was a disrespect to Christ for taking his life for us and not celebrating his life in return. This controversy is hard and unlike many in that religion is playing a main role. It is hard to respect all religions without offending one. While Starbucks tries to encourage employees to treat all equally and not say Merry Christmas to customers to try and respect people who don't celebrate the holiday, they ended up disrespecting some Christians who found it very offensive. Not only with not saying Merry Christmas but more importantly the cups. Their intention was to make a cup that all religions could express their stories and holiday traditions on whether it be hanukah, kwanzaa, or Christmas, but they quickly offended the christians by breaking their tradition. The previous cups were pretty mainstream and not hard core christian themed with crosses or anything pertaining Jesus, but things like ornaments that someone would put on a christmas tree, or reindeer that santa would deliver his presents with.  People of the jewish faith could say they are offended that there is ornaments on the cups instead of a menorah. I think that Starbucks also didn't act rationally because they waited way to long to even apologize to those offended and explain their intentions for the cup. It wasn't clear before they came out with their statement on why the plain red cup was chosen and why they got rid of the Christmas themed cups. The formulation of humanity is another important aspect of the Kant theory.  “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”. Starbucks did not follow this formula because their motives weren't respected equally. I think if I were a CEO of Starbucks and had to act during the controversy I would've chosen to discontinue the red cups for the holiday season and go back to the regular cups so people would stop feeling offended and disrespected. The Kants would deem Starbucks as being unethical. 

Virtue Theory 

Comprised of courage, honesty, temperance, and justice the virtue theory addresses the big picture. I think that Starbucks did a good job with the courage aspect as they did take a risk in taking a different direction with their holiday cup and trying a new approach. It obviously failed and wasn't a good outcome, but they did have courage doing it. They also had the courage to release e a statement addressing the situation which could've back fired. Having courage is really important in companies because if you never take risks, how are you going to progress. Although taking the risk caused a lot of negative publicity, without that risk and courage they wouldn't have increased sales so much and had on elf the most successful holiday seasons ever. I think that they were honest with their employees and customers and did make an apology to those customers. They weren't sneaky about anything during the whole controversy. They released the cup in hopes of people creating their own stories on them and when that backfired and people took them for being anti christian and Christmas  they were honest about their true intentions of the plain cup. If companies are known for being sneaky conniving liars, many consumers would likely not continue giving business so it is important that Starbucks was so honest during a time of such chaos. The temperance was having a desire for customers to be able to draw on their own  cups and draw their own holiday stories but it failed when it came off as lacking christmas spirit. They wanted them to be able to express their own feelings about the holiday and be inclusive of all religions. Though that was quickly taken offensively by the christians, the intention was ethical. The justice in having quality products and good ideas was lacking in this cup. Obviously Starbucks has good products and ideas or it wouldn't be one of the leading coffee company's in the world, but with this product it wasn't the best idea they've had. In years past and the idea in general, Starbucks certainly outdid themselves with the idea to start this tradition in the first place. Having a holiday themed cup to get people in the spirit and spreading holiday joy was a brilliant idea. In the year 2015 the cup lacked creativity in itself and didn't satisfy the peoples expectations. The virtue theory would view Starbucks as being not completely unethical but not quite ethical. 


Gasca, P. (2015, November 16). 3 Lessons from Starbucks Red Cup Controversy. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

Green, E. (2015, November 10). The Inanity of the Starbucks Christmas Cup Controversy. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

Moyer, J. W. (2015, November 09). Starbucks ‘removed Christmas from their cups because they hate Jesus,’ Christian says in viral Facebook video. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

Taylor, K. (2016, October 28). A Starbucks employee revealed what looks like this years red holiday cups. Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

What Starbucks' Red Cup Controversy Says About American Consumers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2017, from

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