“The red cups have taken on almost a cultural role, at least in the US, and now in a lot of other markets around the world as well. When the cups turns red at Starbucks, that’s one of the first cues that the holidays are upon us. The emotional connection that our store partners (employees) have when they open that first box of the red cups and start using them that first day, and the emotional connection they see from their customers, that’s what we strive for. They see that surprise and excitement: ‘Oh, the red cups are at Starbucks!’ It’s really special and all of us in the studio feel privileged to do the work that can create such an emotional moment and connection in our stores between our partners and our customers.”
– Terry Davenport, Senior Vice President, Global Brand and Creative Studios at Starbucks
It is engrained in our culture: It’s not Christmas until the Starbucks red cups arrive.
Here in Los Angeles, we have very few identifiers of the upcoming winter season. It never snows here, and “cold” is considered anything less than 70 degrees. For us, and for many people across the country and around the world, the iconic Starbucks red cups signal that winter has begun and the holiday season is upon us.
My team jumped at the opportunity to get a sneak peak of the Holiday 2013 cups before they hit stores, and chat with the Starbucks design team about the striking new visual direction they have taken this year. We had the pleasure to speak with Terry Davenport, Senior Vice President, Global Brand and Creative Studios, Mike Peck, Creative Director, Packaging and Merchandise, and Toki Wolf, Creative Director, In-store Promotions.
According to Terry, the entire Starbucks Global Creative studio, made up of 120 people, had a hand in creating Starbucks holiday.
The first thing you will notice about the new red cups is how different they are from previous years. Absent are any of the seasonal characters that have been the focus of the past three years of Starbucks holiday packaging. This year, Starbucks has chosen to create an entirely new holiday design language that is centered around the best gift Starbucks could give: coffee.
“If we wanted to give an authentic piece of Starbucks for the holidays, something that we know our customers love, what would that be? We’re all about the coffee. We’re passionate about coffee. It’s very emotional to us. That’s what we bring to the world. We have millions and millions of people across tens of thousands of stores who come to us throughout the year in order to get great coffee. If we were going to give a gift, that’s the gift we would give. It would be really coffee-centric and it would be a part of what we live and breathe everyday. What we did this year that is very different is we started with the coffee plants, coffee farms, and origin countries. These are very graphic elements and we took on the challenge of seeing if we can paint them with the red brush and turn these images into our very own distinctive set of holiday graphics. “
On Starbucks Holiday Design
Terry: We usually work on two holidays at a time at Starbucks. The one coming up as well as the next holiday out – it’s something we work on pretty much all year round. Holiday is critically important to Starbucks on a number of fronts. Obviously from a business perspective, like any other retailer, the holiday shopping season is an important time of the year. But, for us it’s more than just the commerce behind it. It’s the emotional connection that our customers have to Starbucks and the holidays. It’s our opportunity to play a meaningful role in our customers’ lives and traditions. Few brands are privileged enough to play that role – we’re humbled by the way our customers embrace us all year long but especially during the holidays, and we see the role we play during their holiday celebrations as a big responsibility.
When our stores turn red for the holidays, they really do become a special place – a bit of a respite during the busy holiday shopping season. The red cups have taken on almost a cultural role, at least in the US, and now in a lot of other markets around the world as well. When the cups turns red at Starbucks, that’s one of the first cues that the holidays are upon us. The emotional connections that our store partners (employees) have when they open that first box of the red cups and start using them that first day, and the emotional connections they see from their customers, that’s are what we strive for. They get see that surprise and excitement: ‘Oh, the red cups are at Starbucks!’ It’s really special and we feel privileged to play that role. All of us in the studio feel privileged to do the work that can create such an emotional moment and connection in our stores between our partners and our customers.
Andrew Gibbs / The Dieline: Could you tell us about the history of the red cups? How long have they been going on?
Terry: We now have sixteen years of red cups. Starbucks Christmas Blend packaging actually dates farther back than that. This year is the 29th year that a bag of Christmas Blend will show up in our stores.
On The Strategy
Terry: The last three holidays we started with the foundation of the Holiday characters. We created these characters for the first time three years ago and we brought them back each year, adding different elements to them. We graphically interpreted them a little bit differently the second season. Both of those seasons were record breaking for us. Then, last holiday we brought them back for the third year. We turned them into a really beautiful looking store set, and I thought last holiday was going to be tough to beat. The way the characters came to life on the packaging and on the red cups in particular; we felt like it was just improving year-by-year-by-year.
One of the things we asked ourselves, after that third time around the block with the characters is “Are these just becoming the way holidays shows up at Starbucks? Would they have a Disney-like appeal? Do they just continue to show up differently each year and become our new tradition? Do we build equity with them year after year? Or, have the characters kind of run their course and it’s time for us to step back, and surprise everybody with a totally different holiday?” That was a big decision for us. And while we love the characters and how they resonated with our customers, we decided that it was time to strike off in a new direction this year.
So we started with a little bit of a pivot in the strategy, to see where the new strategy would take us in terms of design. As we looked back at the years of Christmas and holiday designs that Starbucks has featured in our stores, one of the things that struck us was that we tended to look at culture and those traditional signals and designs of holiday. We’d then bring those elements into Starbucks and in our own way, but with familiar graphic ideas. Whether it’s the snowman, snowflakes, Christmas stockings, or all the other usual cues of the holidays. We turn them red and we return them to the stores.
The pivot and insight that we built on this year was a little bit different: think about the best Christmas gift you’ve ever received. It probably came from someone close to you. They know you well. They wanted to give you something special and maybe they even made it themselves. They wanted to use the gift as a way to create a very strong emotional connection by either giving you something that they love or something that they made – a part of them – that they knew you’d also love.
So, we said, if we wanted to give an authentic piece of Starbucks for the holidays, something that we know our customers love, what would that be? We’re all about the coffee. We’re passionate about coffee. It’s very emotional to us. That’s what we bring to the world. We have millions and millions of people and across tens of thousands of stores who come to us the rest throughout of the year in order to get for great coffee. If we were going to give a gift, that’s the gift we would give. It would be really coffee centric and it would be a part of what we live and breathe every day. What we did this year that is very different is we started with the coffee plants, coffee farms, and origin countries. We see those in these are very graphic elements and then we took on the challenge of seeing if we can paint them with the red brush and then turn these images it into our very own distinction distinctive set of holiday graphics.
Andrew Gibbs / The Dieline: That’s fascinating. We can definitely see a bit of that in the design elements.
Terry: I’ll let Toki talk to you more about the elements. An average customer might see the familiar holiday elements and design. But if you spend some time looking at it and look past the familiar, you start to see what we feel was coming from our point of view.
On The Design Process
Toki: One of our early idea explorations was treating our core product, coffee, in its agricultural form and seeing if we could apply that in a beautiful way for the holidays. See if it can be meaningful in the holiday timeframe. So, there’s this image, a quick sketch of a coffee plant with coffee cherries coming out of the red cup. We were literally thinking, “If coffee is at the heart of what we do, can that be the foundation where the exploration comes from?” Even in that little sketch form, we thought we might be onto something. We kept going back to it, even after moving on from it and exploring different illustration style. We always went back to the drawing with the red cup below it. It was the basis of the elements that ended up on the red cups and the coffee bags for this year.
So, the idea was to take these coffee cherries and use them as a holiday element – like holly berries. The coffee flower that you see on the cups comes across, as maybe a snowflake, maybe a poinsettia. We start to see these interpretations. Even in the origin patterns, they kind of look like snow in an abstract form. They start to have a holiday feel to them. Once we realized that we could make this work visually in a way that was both authentically Starbucks and authentically holiday, we went for it, and extracted it all the way across all of our holiday elements. We started with the way it can be interpreted, creating the story around it. Going back to that original sketch, it feels like this beautiful holiday moment is coming out of the red cup, literally coming from the coffee. We ended up keeping the element in the swoop. We call it a “story swoop” or “story arch” that kind of flow around the packaging. So, you’ll see that across all of our holiday design elements, including the cups and the coffee packaging.
Mike: I think one thing that’s nice about the collection this year is not one single piece will look exactly the same. When we used the characters in the past, we had the tendency to take the characters and repeat them. We had them on the bag and we had the same characters across all of the holiday design elements, but maybe they do something a little different on the cup versus the coffee bag. But this year, every single one of these pieces is added into the other – and that goes from the cups to the bags, to the merchandise. Everything is open stock. It’s a large collection really showcasing how Starbucks does coffee and holiday.
Ivan Navarro / The Dieline: With the characters being introduced over the past few years, they have become the biggest part of Starbucks holiday packaging. They have been used in so many ways on a wide range of products, merchandise, and collateral. Was there any fear or hesitation in deviating away from them?
Terry: Yes, I think that was one of the reasons why we thought long and hard about walking away from them. There is definitely a fun and cute factor that came with the characters. In some ways it’s easier to drive that emotional connection through these recognizable characters. But we felt like we’d been there and done that. What we did was we looked at where we going with the brand overall and we looked for the opportunity to elevate. We recognized that there was this level of sophistication that we could bring into holiday.
Toki: The idea that people were relating these characters, a fox and a snowman, to our brand. It became an opportunity to come back to our core product and think of how we could deliver the same moment of connection through our coffee that we deliver in our stores through our design.
“We wanted to create something that felt right for coffee but was unique and own-able to Starbucks. By doing so, we created this new visual vocabulary around coffee that looks traditional and looks like it’s rooted in heritage, but yet it’s fresh and new. We haven’t done anything exactly like it - nor has there been anything like it in the category.”
– Terry Davenport
Ivan / The Dieline: Looking at the recent redesign of the Starbucks coffee packaging and now looking at the Holiday design for the Red Cups, as well as the holiday coffee packaging - this seems to me like it is more than just a holiday approach. As far as the packaging as a whole – it has started to really evolve.
Terry: That’s a pretty good insight. This holiday is the next step of the visual journey we’ve been on with the brand. Beginning with the new coffee packaging. We wanted the coffee to be at the center. We wanted it to look like the leader and to elevate above the noise in the coffee category. We wanted to create something that felt right for coffee but was unique and own-able to Starbucks. By doing so, we created this new visual vocabulary around coffee that looks traditional, and looks like it’s rooted in heritage, but yet it’s fresh and new. We haven’t done anything exactly like it - nor has there been anything like it in the category. You’re right. This holiday feels like a natural extension of that [the coffee packaging redesign]. It keeps that momentum going.
Mike: I think one of the things about how we embraced this new strategy and direction and what was expected of us as designers, is that we really set the coffee itself at the center of the design.
Toki: That’s a good way to look at why we’re not continuing with those characters on the bag. We feel that our story is way bigger than the iconic characters that we’ve used in the past three years. It really is about our heritage within our coffee.
Ivan Navarro/ The Dieline: I feel like this time around the design is really abstract. Nothing is in its literal form. Even on the sleeves you have these patterns and representations, lines that could possibly be snow, little triangles that could be chalets or maybe mountains. I feel like the customer can fill in those blanks with their own stories, memories and imaginations, rather than just have the literal manifestation of these iconic moments given to them and that’s just it.
Terry: In a studio full of designers, writers and creative talent, of course we love the designs but the first test of any new holiday design is: Ok, we love these ideas and elements, but do they translate into cools cups? Does it make a really cool red bag for the Christmas blend? That’s the first litmus test.
The minute we started playing with this idea on early cup designs and early coffee bag designs, we felt like we were onto something powerful pretty quickly. Then it’s just the matter of refining it, and frankly, getting alignment all the way up to Howard. If there’s anything Howard personally sees and blesses every year, it’s the red cups for Christmas and the coffee bag for Christmas Blend, right down to the shade of the color red. Once we had the design ready and showed it to him and he got excited about it, we got even more excited for how Holiday is going to show up at Starbucks this year.
Holiday is our biggest store set of the year. Our store partners [employees] have a busy day ahead of them when they open those boxes to set up holiday in our stores. That’s kind of the equivalent of kids running down to see what Santa left them on Christmas morning. Our store partners get excited every year to crack open those boxes and see what holiday is going to look like this year. We can’t wait to hear what our partners think, and see reactions from our customers. We hope they love it as much as we all do!
Special thanks to Terry, Mike, Toki and the entire Starbucks Global Design team.