Stars, stripes, flames and coffee cherries, all adorned in cheerful shades of red and green.
These are the four designs included in Starbucks’s latest batch of seasonally themed cups, which will debut Friday as the company kicks off the holiday season. This year, the coffee-making titan said it wanted to “look to the past” and draw inspiration from its signature Christmas blend.
Straightforward enough, right? Well – for some reason – it isn’t.
The cups seem harmless at first, granting consumers a festive way to enjoy their favorite sugary – and sometimes over-the-top – beverages. But in recent years, watching some of Starbucks’s seasonal design choices trigger controversy has become a holiday tradition in itself.
In 2015, for example, the company introduced a plain red holiday cup, ending a string of designs that featured more explicit holiday symbols, such as ornaments and reindeer, dating to 1997. Upon introducing the minimalist cup, Starbucks Vice President Jeffrey Fields said it was a way to “usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”
The biggest story emerged soon afterward, however, when self-described evangelist Joshua Feuerstein posted a now-infamous rant on Facebook, slamming the coffee chain’s design choice. He exclaimed in the video, “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!”
Feuerstein wasn’t alone in his ire. That same year, at a campaign rally, then-candidate Donald Trump also criticized the cups, suggesting that there was “No more ‘Merry Christmas’ at Starbucks. No more.”
“Maybe we should boycott Starbucks,” Trump added.
In 2017, Starbucks went a different route – crafting a white design with doodles that encouraged customers to decorate and color the cup to their liking. But the doodles included two interlocked hands that some interpreted as belonging to a same-sex couple. This upset some, who believed the cup’s design unnecessarily promoted a “gay agenda.”
Back then, Starbucks told the New York Times that it would leave it up to customers to interpret what was on the cup.
This year, the question from 2015 returns: Is Starbucks truly embracing Christmas?
A CNN article published Thursday morning suggests as much. In the article, titled “Starbucks is doubling down on Christmas with its new holiday cups,” Chief Operating Officer Roz Brewer said the company had “listened to customers” and realized they “loved the tradition of Christmas.”
Brewer said Starbucks realized that last year’s cup design “didn’t resonate with some, but it did resonate with others.” She also told CNN that this year’s cups are “not only retro, but true to who we are.”
Beth Egan, an associate professor of advertising at Syracuse University, told The Washington Post that she doesn’t think the latest batch of cups reflect Christmas or any one holiday in particular.
“They have a nice array of images that sort of play to Christmas from the red and green standpoint,” Egan said. “But if you look at the star, it could just as easily be a Star of David.”
Egan said she thinks some groups, such as conservative Christians, may be actively looking to pick fights with Starbucks’s designs because of the stances the company has taken on certain issues, such as same-sex marriage.
“I find the ire interesting. I think some people are looking to be angry,” Egan said.
On the controversy surrounding the hands on last year’s cup, she added: “If you look at the overall design of that cup, they’re cartoon hands… . How do you make a cartoon hand male or female?”
In a statement to The Post, Starbucks spokeswoman Sanja Gould said that, above all, the company aspires to create a “real sense of community and connection between our baristas and customers.”
“As a brand that is intensely personal, we are humbled by how passionate customers are about our holiday cups,” Gould said.
And for those who liked the plain red cup from 2015, don’t fret: Starbucks is giving out limited-edition reusable red cups to customers Friday while supplies last.