“A crisis is the perception of an unpredictable event that threatens important expectations of stakeholders related to health, safety, environmental, and economic issues can seriously impact an organization’s performance and generate negative outcomes” (Coombs 2015, p 3). A crisis can scare people away from an organization. Even if it is something minor, if the public is upset and word-of-mouth is travelling, consumers will associate negative views towards a brand and potentially stop shopping there. Controversy stirred up on social media when Starbucks announced their holiday cups in late October of 2015 (Wattles 2015). Starbucks is a coffee company that started in 1971 and their mission is “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time” (Starbucks 2017). Following that mission, their core values include creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome. Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other. Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect. Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results. We are performance driven, through the lens of humanity (Starbucks 2017). With these values of wanting everyone to feel welcome and connect humanity with dignity and respect, how could this company cause controversy with the public?

In 2015, Starbucks announced their holiday cups to have a two-toned red design. In the past the company have had Christmas themed cups, but for the 2015 design they didn’t want to just celebrate Christmas. The Christian community was upset and felt Starbucks didn’t believe in Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, a former pastor who calls himself a “social media personality,” encouraged customers to say “Merry Christmas” instead of their names in order to “trick” baristas into writing the phrase on the cup. He said to use “#MerryChristmasStarbucks” to post photos online. When the cups rolled out in late October, Starbucks vice president Jeffrey Fields said the company “wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories” (Wattles 2015). Although, Starbucks had good intentions, they still managed to offend part of the public and this was a crisis for the company.

According to the conflict management life cycle, the Starbucks cup design started in the proactive stage. “The proactive phase of the conflict management lie cycle includes activities and thought process that can prevent a conflict from arising or getting out of hand” (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber & Shin, 2013, p 171). Starbucks removed the former Christmas designed cups to have a more religion neutral design to include all consumers. Starbucks was proactive by trying to avoid conflict, of other religions getting upset for not being included. Although, they ended up offended Christians who were used to the Christmas themed cup designs. The next stage is strategic, this is where the crisis management plan is created (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber & Shin, 2013, p 172). Starbucks didn’t mean to offend anyone, they actually meant to do the opposite by including everyone. The strategy that would make the most sense would be releasing a statement explaining their intentions for their crisis management plan.  The reactive phase involves crisis communication and implementing the crisis management plan (Wilcox, Cameron, Reber & Shin, 2013, p 172). Starbucks communicated to the public about the crisis with a statement following Feuerstein’s video, “Starbucks said in a statement Sunday that it tries “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.” The cup is meant to be a “blank canvas” that encourages “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way,” Starbucks said” (Wattles 2015). The final step of the cycle is recovery, “The aftermath of a crisis or a high-profile, heated conflict with a public, an organization employs strategies to bolster or repair its reputation. The 2015 design for Starbucks’ holiday cups were solid red to be used as a blank canvas for its consumers to decorate their cup how they see fit. Starbucks recovery included using consumers designs as official Starbucks designs for the 2016 holiday cups. Starbucks posted a video advertisement on YouTube with the statement, “The 2016 Starbucks Red Cups have launched in all our stores worldwide for the Holidays. Last year we asked for our community to share what the Holiday Season means to them with Red Cup art and designs. This year we are celebrating this creativity by showcasing 10 of these Red Cup designs on our holiday cups.”

Angering the public it could lead to boycotts of the company. At the time “President-elect Donald Trump weighed in last year, urging a boycott of Starbucks because the coffee chain’s holiday cup lacked any seasonal imagery” (O’Malley, 2016, p 3). Although, this is conflicting because not all people in the country celebrate Christmas. Excluding a religious group from advertisements may result in turning those potential consumers away from the company. “That’s not to say that businesses and their employees aren’t celebrating. “Nobody is denying the holiday of Christmas exists,” human resource expert Caren Goldberg, an associate professor of management at Bowie State University in Maryland, says. “It’s just accepting that other holidays do exist, too” (O’Malley, 2016, p 4). Overall, the crisis wasn’t too damaging to Starbucks. The company gained more recognition and even with the upset Christians movement of #MerryChristmasStarbucks, they were still purchasing the product. “The stakes are high and the terrain can be perilous, especially for retailers trying to avoid offending customers or triggering boycotts during their most profitable time of year. On the other hand, there may be opportunity: The fuss over Starbucks’ cup reaped the company a public relations bonanza that prompted envy from marketing experts who said that, even amid the criticism, public awareness of the brand was heightened (O’Malley, 2016 p 3).”


Coombs, Timothy, W. (2015). Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing, and Responding. Sage Publications.

O’Malley, Sharon. (2016) The business of Christmas. Sage Business Researcher. Sage Publishing.

Starbucks Coffee. (2016, Nov 9). Starbucks Red Cups Now in Stores. [Video file] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXJ21HtXr1U

Starbucks Corporation. (2017). Our Company. Starbucks.com

Wattles, Jackie. (2015). Starbucks’ red cups stir up controversy. CNN Money. 

Wilcox, D. L., Cameron G. T., Rebe, B. H., & Shin, J. (2013). Book. Think Public Relations.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Pearson Education, Inc..