Starbucks Betacup

Starbucks beta cup 2010It comes as some kind of eco-irony that when Starbucks put out an open brief to “reduce the number of non-recyclable cups that are thrown away every year by creating a more convenient alternative to the reusable coffee cup”, that the winning result is not actually a cup at all, but (essentially) a blackboard. The Karma Cup has arrived.

What is actually most impressive about it is that the designers have considered what most would neglect, and approached the problem from the point of the view of the user, rather than Starbucks’ sole approach of looking to reduce waste. Fortunately by encouraging the user to change their behaviour this solution offers both and will (probably) successfully achieve the latter too.

“There are plenty of great reusable mugs out there” the entry acknowledges, “but what people really need is an incentive to make the behaviour change”. And they’re exactly right.

Chosen by a jury of designers, engineers and entrepreneurs, the Karma Cup fought off some innovative competition from a pool of over 400 entries.

The Karma Cup

The Karma Cup solution means that “customers who bring in a reusable mug can put a mark on the board, and every tenth guest receives a free beverage”. Nothing like “a free cup of coffee and a bit of peer pressure” to encourage user behavior in the right direction.

Karma Cup Beta Cup

Simple, yet you can immediately see it looks to be very effective. By adjusting the user’s view, opinion and behaviour of the system it offers clear insight into solving the problem. The problem has been solved by reducing the number of cups people buy, but not affecting the sales of the actual product that people want (the coffee) in any negative way. In fact, it may even push sales up as people want to ‘show off’ about doing their bit for the environment and strive for that illusive “free beverage”. Offering free things tends to bring out the positive in people.

Karma Cup Beta Cup


I’m a big fan of user-centred design, and this is a great example in the case for it. Instantly people (designers or otherwise) can see the huge benefits and positives in the proposed solution.

The idea also lends itself to marketing through social media, which is hot stuff right now. Whether earning badges, checking in or whatever, it provides an excellent marketing opportunity and lots of people are involved with it. Rewarding people through games, visiting places, and even virtual badges are great, providing huge incentives to people, and showing off online is almost becoming as legitimate as boasting in real life! This treats real life actions as a game, and a game means that people will want to get involved, and win.

I also bet Starbucks love this idea as it means that they can sell lots of branded reusable mugs to all the people queuing up to play this ‘game’.

Whilst it has been offered as a blackboard I can see technology taking over this concept soon, perhaps a mobile app and a touch screen interface in store to check you off the list whilst recording and remembering just how you like you coffee, there’s a lot of scope in this. Most importantly it won the competition because it meets the brief in the simplest of ways, no new product, just encouraging new thinking.

Other notable entries

Before I sign off, other notable mentions should go to the three runners up too:

The 100% compostable cup made from rice husks

100% compostable cup

The Champion Cup which looks to reward on a similar social media level to the likes of Foursquare (I do like this one, but then I am involved in almost every badge-hoarding app at the moment)

Champion Cup

Band of honor And the Band of Honor, which lets the customer show off their eco-cred

Overall, Starbucks win (less cups to buy, less waste to dispose of, more reusable cups to sell) and the customer wins (by doing their bit for the environment and ‘winning’ the odd free coffee). Everyone’s happy and the world is (probably) a better place.  Graphic Design   

Gary Hartley

Gary Hartley is The Floating Frog. A seasoned freelance web designer with skills in UI/UX, CRO design, WordPress, branding, PSD-HTML conversions and more. Got a project you need to start or take to the next level? Please, get in touch!