To Offend or Not To Offend? The Holiday Controversy Question


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With the recent controversies over red Starbucks cups and holiday sweaters, retailers are faced with hard questions about their brand identity. There’s an adage that says “it’s not what happens to you that matters—it’s how you respond that’s most important.” How a business responds to offended customers makes a huge statement about that brand’s values.

In the case of Starbucks, the decision to replace their Christmas-themed cup design (which had been used for years) with a plain red one generated extreme amounts of discussion on social media. Joshua Feuerstein posted a video on Facebook titled “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus,“ and it quickly went viral, with many people supporting him.

In the case of Target and Nordstrom, both retailers fell under scrutiny for holiday sweaters that some considered to be offensive. Target’s “OCD — Obsessive Christmas Disorder” sweater was criticized for being insensitive to those suffering from mental illness. Nordstrom’s “Chai Maintenance” sweater was attacked for perpetuating a stereotype about Jewish people.

Incidents like these are defining moments for a brand’s identity. While Nordstrom apologized for its offensive sweater and stopped selling it, Target made no such apologies and continues to carry the item. The controversies raise questions that are core to business’ values and how they would like to be perceived in the marketplace:

  • Are we more concerned with sales, or making sure we don’t offend a certain customer segment?
  • Who is our target buyer, and do we care if some buyers don’t like us?
  • To what extent do we react to such backlash and make business decisions based on what offended customers say?

Is our goal to be politically correct, or to increase profits? Are the two mutually exclusive?

If the ultimate goal is profitability, then businesses do best when they are empowered with an accurate view of customer feedback, coupled with data about customer loyalty. Having this data will allow brands to understand what percentage of the online conversation is positive or negative, and the extent to which the negative sentiment will actually impact sales.

Here’s how it works. By using social listening technology, brands can gain a thorough understanding of the conversations across Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Applying a sentiment analysis to this data reveals not only positive and negative mentions of the brand, but deeper insights into how customers feel.

For example, a business can detect emotions such as anger, disappointment, frustration, happiness, excitement, and others, and also determine the drivers of those emotions. In the case of Starbucks, Target and Nordstrom, the following questions can be quickly answered:

  • What percentage of the total conversation about the red Starbucks cups is positive?
  • For the people who like the Target sweater, why do they like it? What are they saying about it?
  • When looking at the entire universe of conversations about Nordstrom, how much of it focuses on the holiday sweater?

The key is for brands to be monitoring these conversations 24×7, not just when a crisis emerges. An established social media listening program ensures that brands aren’t caught off guard by viral videos, and can immediately determine the impact.

Beyond social channels, a complete view of customer feedback is only attainable from an omni-source program. Brands that are also collecting and analyzing feedback from the call center, surveys, inbound emails, and online review sites, are easily able to determine if the offended customers are just making noise on social media, or if they are angry enough to complain directly to the business.

Finally, to truly understand the impact of this type of backlash on the business, brands need to look at CRM data. Are the offended customers regular buyers? If so, are they likely to churn because they are offended by a product decision? The challenge is obviously connecting this purchase history data with social listening data. Sophisticated analytics tools can bring this data together and paint a clear picture of the customer landscape: who are the most loyal customers and are they offended?

It’s important to make the distinction between offending customers vs. failing to meet their needs. In the case of Keurig, customers were outraged because they discontinued the My K-Cup product, which limited their ability to choose from non-Keurig brands of coffee. This decision was detrimental to the business and profits fell dramatically. Offending customers is a different story, however, and that’s where a brand’s core values come into play.

In light of these holiday controversies and with the possibility of more on the horizon, brands are faced with difficult decisions. Having as much customer data as possible will go a long way in helping businesses decide how to act in the face of mass public scrutiny.

Elizabeth Clor
Elizabeth Clor is the Chief Marketing Officer at Contegix, a managed service provider for digital applications. Elizabeth has 20 years of experience in marketing and communications, primarily for B2B SaaS companies in the DC metro area. She holds a B.A. of English from the University of Virginia and has a passion for writing.


  1. Hi Elizabeth

    What an interesting, if somewhat US-centric post.

    We live in challenging times. A small minority of people seem to take offence at the slightest thing, even where that thing may have a long tradition, was never intended to offend and does not offend the vast majority of people. Although this is largely confined to the US at the moment, it is only a matter to time before this kind of minority censorship, for that is what it is, travels to the UK and thence, to Europe. It started with vacuous greetings like ‘Happy Holidays’ rather than ‘Happy Christmas’, moved on through replacing Christmas cups with inane red ones to who knows where next.

    A brand needs to stand for something that resonates with its customers. These brand values needs to drive its customers and their behaviours, rather than just being driven by them. There is an obvious danger of being too quick to respond to the social echo-chamber without validating if the vocal minority on social media is representative of the purchasing majority. Usually they are not and can be safely ignored. There is also a more insidious danger of diluting the brand’s values by kow-towing to the vocal minority and their numerous, artificial grievances. This is not only bad for the brand, it is also bad for the society in which it exists.

    As Winston Churchill famously said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

    Graham Hill

  2. Hello Graham,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. When I was originally thinking about this article in my head, I was going to take a stronger stance on not allowing “offense culture” dictate a business’ actions. In the United States, I think there is a silent majority of people who agree that it’s ridiculous to get offended over these things, but the offended parties are far more vocal on social media.

    I completely agree with you that a brand needs to stand for something– it needs to have values and clearly defined boundaries in terms of how much they will let offended customers control their purchasing decisions.

    I think that if companies use the data that’s available to them, and have a way for interpreting it accurately, the decisions become easier. Decisions become fact-based and less emotional.

    I’d be willing to bet that you will start to see more of this “offense culture” in the UK, unfortunately. It’s gaining quite a bit of traction in the US, and becoming harder to ignore.

    Thanks again for your perspective. I agree with you 100%.

  3. Hi Elizabeth

    Thanks for your comment.

    I fear that you are right that an ‘offence culture’ will cross the pond to the UK. A recent article in The Economist on ‘The Right to Fright’ highlighted how students were stifling discussion of some difficult (and many not so difficult) subjects that may cause them discomfort. It mentioned a debate on abortion at Oxford University which was cancelled after some students complained that hearing the voices of anti-abortionists might make them feel unsafe. Perhaps someone should have reminded them of Voltaire’s quote, “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it”.

    I shudder to think what might have happened to the movements for women’s suffrage in the UK, for civil rights in the US and for other rights across the world if the small minds of the few were allowed to dictate the fundamental rights of the many.

    So what does this mean for marketers? I think it is quite simple. Marketers should understand what values their brands stand for and what that means for the vast majority of customers, and then they should doggedly promote their brands and their values come what may. Providing their marketing doesn’t fall foul of e.g. ASA guidelines on decency, they should have little to worry about. Even a spot of controversy can do brands a world of good, as Protein World found when its ‘Beach Body Ready’ ads in the UK created a media storm but also significantly increased sales. Perhaps Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “the only thing worse than being in the news, is not being in the news”.

    Graham Hill


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