Branding for the Holidays – Content Marketing Lessons in the Starbuck’s Cup Controversy

Starbucks Holiday Cup

The 2015 Starbucks holiday cup started an interesting conversation in the marketing world. The range of reactions to the coffee giant’s mug highlights the need for companies to address marketing a brand appropriately during the holidays. Yes, we’re going there. Whether you feel outrage at the cup’s lack of traditional symbolism or you love the perceived inclusivity of the design, it’s time to look at your company’s holiday marketing approach in a world divided between political correctness and standing up for your beliefs.

Whether Starbucks intended to stand out for its design during the holiday season is hard to say, but it does serve as a reminder that everything a company posts online represents its brand. Every article, Tweet, Instagram caption, and blog carries a certain voice and tone your readers will internalize and use to draw conclusions about your company.

The Psychology

The psychology of content development and publication is incredibly powerful. Free offerings such as quizzes, custom article subscriptions, or other value-added content earns reader curiosity and engagement. Emotional appeals can actually change a reader’s brain chemistry, releasing the same hormones in-person interactions can produce. Perceptions created in the reader’s mind drive brand awareness and action. Content can be as powerful as a masterfully presented sales pitch or long-term professional relationship appeal.

With the diverse psychological effects of content, it’s no wonder that a simple turn of phrase or type of content might put you in the category of “secular,” “narrow-minded,” or “politically correct.” What people say as brand representatives has a powerful impact in the minds of an audience.

Authenticity Is the Key

Our culture is slowly shifting towards a place where both inclusivity and the right to express your beliefs are valued and protected. Some people believe companies have the right to express their beliefs fully, regardless of their audience or employee culture. Others firmly believe inclusivity should be standard across all organizations. These perspectives will likely remain hotly debated for years to come. Seeking balance and remaining authentic is the only thing enterprises can do.

Three Approaches to Holiday Marketing

Your company can take one of three different approaches to the holiday season:

  1. Forego all religious references in favor of secularism. This means removing all traditional symbolism associated with any faith in favor of seasonal symbols everyone can relate with, such as snowflakes and polar bears.
  1. Adopt a culture of inclusivity. If you represent one religion during the holidays, you might also represent others. For instance, you may display a menorah and Star of David with a Christmas tree and a cross.
  1. You can make a religious statement. Some companies aren’t shy about their religious background – and that’s okay, too. Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, and various other stores embrace their beliefs and use it in marketing and other aspects of their business process. Taking a religious stance can but doesn’t have to mean excluding consumers or igniting controversy.

Federal agencies are required to adhere to federal standards for holiday decorating and marketing, but private enterprises can take or leave religion as they see fit. For Starbucks this year, that meant choosing a cup that, in the words of the VP of design and content, “welcomes all of our stories.” However, the company still offers a Christmas blend and traditional advent calendars in its product line.

Every business should explore its position regarding beliefs and the holiday season and use that information to present a consistent message through content and marketing. It may also open the conversation regarding employee beliefs, acceptance, and the overall company mission.

Look at holiday advertising this season, and you’ll notice the subtle changes taking place in every marketing strategy. Many individuals and enterprises are starting to thoughtfully explore this topic from a legal, marketing, and mission-based perspective.

Making an Impact This Holiday Season

Regardless of your holiday stance, some things remain universal. Here are some topics and tips you can use to reach an audience regardless of holiday orientation:

  • Community service. Many companies give back to the community during the holiday season. Highlight your employees’ local efforts, put a spotlight on a giving customer, and tell uplifting stories about charity and community service.
  • Provide winter tips. Every business has some advice it can offer about the changing seasons. Give consumers some expert recommendations about local weather conditions, staying warm, enjoying holiday parties, or other wintery topics.

Branding for the holidays

  • Focus on the New Year. The holiday season happens to coincide with the end of one year and the beginning of another. Take the opportunity to explore old trends and new ones, offer top 10 lists, or grant some sagacious advice for 2016.
  • Keep it short and value-focused. People spend the holidays wrapping up business matters, spending time with family, and getting out of the office. Focus on content that appeals to these other aspects of consumer’s lives with short posts a reader can scan on-the-go.
  • Ask your community for input. Send out surveys and start the conversation in your own consumer community. Ask the people who matter what they want to read and hear from your company and what really turns them off. You might even encourage them to talk about their holiday experiences. Social media can facilitate conversations and help you learn about an audience without sparking controversies.

Whatever you promote through marketing this holiday season, consider your company’s mission and belief stance. Wavering between stances or showing half-hearted resolve may come across as untrustworthy and inauthentic. If your target market does business with you based on your holiday orientation, this year is the time to explore the possibilities and modify your marketing approach.

Some people consistently preach that “marketing and religion” mix about as well as oil and water, but at the end of the day, each company has to make that determination for itself. Just remember that everything you write, post, or share online is a reflection of your brand identity. What do you want your audience to associate with your name this holiday season?

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Rachel Winstead

When she isn’t writing, Rachel spends as much time as she can outside hiking or working in the yard. Kayaking and paddleboarding are two of her favorite outdoor activities, and she’s looking forward to teaching her pit bull-mix, Sawyer, how to balance on a board. She routinely goes camping in the mountains of North Georgia with friends and her boyfriend, David.

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