It’s the holiday season and you know what that means – controversy over Starbucks’ seasonal cup design. A colleague recently asked about the PR implications of this annual observance and what it means for entrepreneurs.
I don’t know whether Starbucks intentionally takes calculated risks with holiday cups each year to generate buzz or whether they adjust the designs innocently, hoping to avoid controversy. What I do know is that giant companies like Starbucks can afford to take more brand risks than entrepreneurial companies, where the margin for error is much less.
A 16-unit coffee competitor here in Colorado found this out the hard way recently. Ink!, founded in Aspen in 1994, opened a shop three years ago in a Denver neighborhood called Five Points, which historically has been home to a population comprised primarily of African-Americans and Latinos. But with soaring demand for affordable housing close to Downtown Denver, the demographics of Five Points are changing.
Just before Thanksgiving, someone photographed a professionally produced Ink! marketing sign outside the shop in Five Points. One side read “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” The other read “Nothing says gentrification like a freshly brewed cortado.” Photos were shared on social media and chaos ensued.
Community advocates led protests outside the shop, which was vandalized with graffiti and a broken window. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock weighed in critically on Twitter, as did Denver City Council President Albus Brooks, whose district includes Five Points. The founder of Ink! apologized – twice — on Facebook. When the shop closed for Thanksgiving, it stayed shuttered throughout the weekend, allowing time for tempers to cool.
The lesson for entrepreneurs is that it’s good for fledgling businesses to do things to stand out in a crowded marketplace, but you don’t want to stand out for the wrong reasons and you can’t afford the risk of missteps as much as big companies can. Making the wrong mistake at the wrong time could be fatal. (Happily, that doesn’t appear to be the case for Ink!, a great company that does many good things for the Colorado communities it serves.)
Avoiding those risks means knowing your customers and your community. If you open a coffee shop in an evolving neighborhood like Five Points, in a fast-growing city where affordable housing is a hot-button issue, you need to know – and your advertising agency needs to know — that gentrification is not a laughing matter for many in the community. Even when mentioned ironically, in line with the Ink! brand’s edgy personality, some customers will be steamed and you will be in hot water. That’s a tough way to learn a brand marketing lesson.