From mall Christmas trees to Starbucks cups, symbols carry weight with consumers

This November 9 photo shows a consumer holding the 2015 Starbucks holiday cup in Washington, D.C. The unadorned red cup has come under fire for its lack of design. Creating a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity is one of the core values of Starbucks, the company said.
This November 9 photo shows a consumer holding the 2015 Starbucks holiday cup in Washington, D.C. The unadorned red cup has come under fire for its lack of design. Creating a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity is one of the core values of Starbucks, the company said. AFP/Getty Images

From the short-lived glacier at SouthPark Mall to this season’s plainer Starbucks cups, it’s clear holiday symbols matter to consumers.

Sometimes, companies’ use of those symbols backfires, as when SouthPark replaced its traditional Christmas tree with a giant faux glacier – a decision the mall quickly reversed.

Other times, backlash doesn’t hurt the mass appeal as much, as with Starbucks’ minimalist redesign of its holiday coffee cups, which had featured seasonal symbols like snowflakes and ornaments since the Seattle chain started circulating them 18 years ago.

Even a decision like when to open and close can carry symbolic value. At a time when more retailers are opening on Thanksgiving, other companies like BJ’s Wholesale Club, Nordstrom and REI are touting their decision to close on the holiday – and in REI’s case, on Black Friday as well – in favor of time spent with family and friends.

From a marketing perspective, social media raises the stakes. News of a controversial move could reach millions within minutes of its announcement, quickly generating its own hashtag that makes discussions on the topic even easier.

Brands can only hope the talk is positive. Businesses are all about building equity, or the power to draw customers on the strength of the brand’s name, says Roger Beahm, an executive director of the Wake Forest School of Business Center for Retail Innovation.

“If people are saying good things about your brand, that’s building equity. If people are not saying good things, you could be losing equity,” Beahm says. “As a marketer, you have to be sensitive towards what the equity impact is of the messaging.”

Reaction on social media and beyond was mostly negative to SouthPark glacier. A petition drew more than 25,000 signatures imploring the mall to bring back the tree. Many customers accused the mall of trying too hard to be politically correct. Others threatened to stop shopping at SouthPark Mall entirely because of the change.

David Contis, president of SouthPark parent Simon Malls, said Sunday the mall listened to shoppers, and despite months of preparation and tens of thousands of dollars spent on the project, the mall “made a mistake” and would go back to its traditional Christmas tree.

“You better make sure what you do has been pre-tested or vetted properly because there are no second chances with social media,” Beahm said. “Once it’s out there ... you have to live with it.” Simon Malls declined to comment on the concept’s market research.

Coffee cups and Trump

Consumers have also accused Starbucks of moving away from traditional holiday symbolism with the design of its seasonal coffee cups. The coffee chain said this year it was reverting to a plainer, “two-toned ombre” design without the holiday symbols. Some have accused the company of “whitewashing Christmas” – though Starbucks still sells its “Christmas blend” coffee.

A Raleigh-based group called Faith Driven Consumer this week called for consumers to buy their coffee from “more faith-compatible alternatives” like Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme. Similarly, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump also said this week that consumers should consider boycotting Starbucks because of its new cup design.

But the redesign might not be as damaging to the brand as some may fear.

“I think Starbucks is at least happy that people are talking about Starbucks,” says Charles Bodkin, a marketing professor at UNC Charlotte.

Given that Starbucks’ share price has remained relatively stable throughout #CupGate2015, as Twitter users have dubbed it, Bodkin says it’s doubtful the red cup change will hurt the brand.

Retailing is all about standing out, being different from one’s competitor and being relevant, Wake Forest’s Beahm says. The trick is evolving in the right direction by appealing to a large enough portion of customers. In Starbucks’ case, customers who resent the change are ones who value tradition.

“You have to decide as a marketer who you’re going to target and who you’re going to be willing to sacrifice losing,” Beahm says.

Beahm and Bodkin separately say that over time, more brands may start going the way of simpler, more inclusive branding with fewer holiday symbols. “Progressive doesn’t necessarily mean moving away from traditions, it may just mean updating them,” Beahm says.

Opening and closing

Other companies send a symbolic message with the way they operate over the holidays.

BJ’s recently said it would be closed on Thanksgiving despite the fact that competitors open their doors that afternoon.

Similarly, Nordstrom has always closed on Thanksgiving and won’t put out its holiday decorations until the following morning. “We like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time, and we’ve heard from many of our customers that they appreciate this approach,” spokeswoman Jessica Canfield says.

Outdoor retailer REI took it a step further, saying it would be closed on Black Friday but still will pay employees for the day. (In a Reddit discussion this week, though, the company came under fire from employees, many of whom said they felt pressured to sell memberships to the co-op.)

Spokesman Mike Ferris says the company believes people should be outdoors celebrating with friends and family instead of inside shopping. REI didn’t make the decision from a short-term financial perspective, Ferris adds.

Says Beahm, of Wake Forest: “The amount of publicity REI has generated as a result of that announcement is probably as much as what the profit would have been that they would have made that day, given the legs that national story has gotten.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta