To Offend or Not To Offend? The Holiday Controversy Question

By: Elizabeth Clor

December 1, 2015

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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?

View the rest of this post on CustomerThink.


Elizabeth Clor is the Sr. Director of Content Marketing and Communications at Clarabridge. In this role, she is responsible for solidifying Clarabridge’s position in the marketplace as the leading Customer Experience Management (CEM) technology vendor. Elizabeth has 17 years of experience in high-tech marketing and communications, and is a regular contributor to various marketing publications. She holds a B.A. of English from the University of Virginia.
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