Brand blowups: Is it actual outrage - or boomerang outrage?

Each year, Starbucks switches out its regular white takeaway coffee cups for red Christmas-style cups. The seasonal cups have a different design each year, and they’re something of a Big Deal in the US. Or so the rest of the world discovered earlier this month, when Joshua Feuerstein, a former TV and radio evangelist with nearly two million followers on Facebook, fired from the hip at the international coffee chain.

This year’s cups are plain red, without any design at all, which gave Feuerstein rage; he claimed Starbucks “removed Christmas” from their cups “because they hate Jesus”. Feuerstein urged God-fearing Americans to ask Starbucks baristas to write “Merry Christmas” in place of a name on the red cups and tweet about it using the hashtag #MerryChristmasStarbucks. (You can watch his diatribe in its entirety here.)

Donald Trump, who’s never seen a bandwagon he didn’t want to personally take for a spin around the block, immediately demanded a boycott, and the Twittersphere erupted with outrage.

But it wasn’t garden variety outrage; instead, it was boomerang outrage. That is, people were outraged over Feuerstein's outrage. It was one per cent actual outrage and 99 per cent boomerang. People pointed out that the cups had usually featured winter icons such as ice skates and snow flakes, which aren’t exactly traditional symbols of Baby Jesus’ birth, and backlash hashtags took off: #ItsJustACup and even #IStandWithStarbucks.

It’s the best sort of outrage a brand can have and it’s a phenomenon money can’t buy. Starbucks spent nothing and got into a worldwide conversation - the fact we’ve been talking about it in New Zealand, where many people basically hate Starbucks on principle, goes to show the potential for the spread of boomerang outrage.

Meanwhile, Starbucks’ PR bunker must’ve been silent with agape astonishment. Their statements revealed they thought the plain red cup left people free to scribble their own designs:

“In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cup designs. This year, we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories."
“Starbucks is inviting our customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way, with a red cup that mimics a blank canvas … inviting our customers to create their own stories on our cups.”

Now there’s nearly 10 million stories on the ‘red cup controversy’, most of which are simply boomerang outrage. It goes to show that the biggest PR controversies or brand blowups are things you can’t see coming. There’s no way Starbucks could’ve manufactured, predicted, or capitalised on the #redcupcontroversy. And their bland statements have left the boomerang outrage free to run wild.

Has it damaged Starbucks? Quite the opposite. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to get a gingerbread latte.