[Starbucks] White Cup Contest

[Starbucks] White Cup Contest

Published On: April 11, 2024

In April of 2014, Starbucks launched the White Cup Contest.

Inspired by the photos posted to social media sites of customers doodles on their mostly white Starbucks paper cups, Starbucks decided to take things one step further.

They encouraged their customers to doodle away, post a photo of the finished product to Twitter or Instagram with #WhiteCupContest, and the winner would have their design printed on a limited edition Starbucks reusable plastic cup. The contest generated nearly 4,000 entries in just three weeks, and changed the winner’s life.

Case Study – What to Learn from Starbucks’ White Cup Contest:

How to pick a contest topic: Perhaps one of the toughest parts of a contest (and the piece that has the most substantial impact on the contest outcome) is the premise of the contest. Starbucks de-risked this as much as possible by merely expanding on an existing and established customer behavior. How many people did Starbucks employees see doodling away on their white coffee cups? How many customers did the Starbucks social media team see people posting directly to social media? They took out most of the risk by simply featuring customers and incentivizing them to do what they were already doing.

How to tangentially boost your brand: We love how Starbucks subtly reinforced several key concepts with this campaign, with a modern day Jedi mind trick. First, by showcasing the creativity and artistic abilities of their customers, Starbucks associates it’s brand with a creative, innovative, and artistic space and customer base. Second of all, the entire premise of the campaign is that they listened to their customers. They observed what their customers were doing on social media, according to the Starbucks site they also listened to feedback that was submitted on their site, and ran with a contest concept inspired by their customers.

How to give proper guidelines: Among our case studies, we see so many brands that have pages and pages of contest rules – it really takes the fun out of it! For as big a company (and legally restrictive) as Starbucks is, our hats off to them for keeping the contest rules exceptionally simple, and giving plenty of white space (yes… that pun is most certainly intended) to their customers. Minimizing restrictions maximized the space for customer creativity, and it seems like these restrictions are merely a function of Starbucks’ foresight into what would be necessary to print copies of the winning design.

Here’s their only restrictions:

  • 1/2 inch horizontal space must remain clear on top and bottom
  • Cup design will only be printed in four colors, one of which must be the logo color 3425 Pantone.
  • Manipulation to the Siren logo is not allowed.
  • No gradients, glitter, metallics or translucent paints can be printed.

Starbucks White Cup Contest — Campaign Overview:

UGC Type: Photos of customer’s decorated Starbucks cup, submitted on Twitter or Instagram
Duration: 3 weeks
Budget: Unknown
Partners: None
Campaign Date: April 2014
Winners cup design printed on a limited edition Starbucks reusable plastic cup
$350 gift card$150k salaried position

Nearly 4,000 photo entries
Winning cup was so popular that it was made available for purchase in Starbucks stores over a year later
Drew attention to its sturdy, reusable cups, which are part of its initiative to promote sustainability.


Ok – say what you want about corporate juggernauts, this campaign is truly incredible. The larger a brand gets, the more conservative they become and the more protective they become of their brand identity. Heck, we’re just a small team furiously writing away about User Generated Content in the back of an unmarked van flying down random highways to avoid being detected by government entities seeking to thwart the power of the people evident in user generated content… and even WE are protective of our brand (note: use our incredible, original UGC University logo without permission and we’ll pull this van right over and sue you!).

So, to see a brand of Starbucks’ size embrace a campaign that allows customers to doodle all over their cups AND release these unencumbered into the internet is really incredible. Yes – they did have restrictions in the guideline that you can’t doodle over the Starbucks Siren logo, but other than that (and a few restrictions necessary to be able to reproduce the winning drawing) they gave their customers free reign.

That’s not the only thing we admire about this campaign. Another factor is that this campaign only came about (at least according to the Starbucks lore on their website) because Starbucks employees were paying attention to what their customers were doing and saying. Customers were doing this, posting these photos on social media, and Starbucks listened to them. It says a lot about Starbucks that they weren’t trying to control or divert customer behavior, but observe it and channel it in a way that amplified the result. (side note: Briar Waterman, creative director for Starbucks digital team, said that he was inspired by the creativity he saw displayed on social media channels and suggested the brand “turn up the volume” on their creativity with this contest. Give that man a raise!).

There’s not a lot of results that we could find for this campaign (4k entrants for a surprisingly short contest duration of only three weeks). However, the one thing we could find about the results was by far the most inspiring (seriously – we’ll put aside our cynicism for just one moment – this really is inspiring).

The winner was a 21-year-old Pittsburgh art student, Brita Lynn Thompson. Here’s what she said, one year after she won the contest, and tell me that Starbucks didn’t pick an incredibly deserving human being:

“Ever since the day Starbucks announced that I was the winner, my life changed. It has never been this great. I get choked up thinking about it sometimes because it is truly an amazing feeling to have thousands and thousands of strangers say that I, Brita Lynn Thompson, inspire them to create. I never thought in a million years I would be such an inspiration to that many people or to anyone at all. Being able to connect with people all around the world through what I love to do makes me happy. I’m lucky and grateful.”

Not only did Brita get her design printed on a limited edition Starbucks reusable plastic cup (which was so popular that it was made available for purchase in Starbucks stores over a year later), and not only did she get a $300 gift card (roughly 68 Grande Soy Lattes), but she used the momentum to start her own business. You can check it out on Etsy here.

The cost to Starbucks for this campaign was minimal – whatever the cost of production of reproducing the design, it’s safe to say they made it back with enough profit from the sale of the limited edition plastic cups to more than cover Brita’s $300 giftcard.