'Tis the season. For coffee addicts, few objects are as iconic as Starbucks Red Cups. The vessels have had their fair share of controversy. In 2015, the coffee magnate opted to shy away from traditional Christmas imagery and, rightly or wrongly, was accused of waging a war on Christmas. 

Despite (or perhaps because of) this controversy, fans eagerly await the Red Cup unveiling each year. As the tagline on the 2005 cup reads, "It only happens once a year".

As we look back at the Red Cups over the years, there are lessons that a company of any size can learn. 

1. Show kindness to your community. 

The 2007 Red Cups featured illustrations of animated characters engaging in acts of kindness -- pulling one another on sleds and caroling together, for example. Customers were encouraged to "Pass the Cheer".

The cups were an unmistakable nod to Starbuck's commitment to community service. Starbucks only processes sustainable coffee, continually produces "greener cups", and encourages community service.

Commit to the betterment of society. Sponsoring fundraising events, implementing recycling policies, and incorporating a "green" philosophy into your product development strategy are all effective tactics. 

2. Embrace digital innovation. 

In 2011, Starbucks parceled its Red Cups with iPhone and Android augmented reality apps called Starbucks Cup Magic. The apps allowed customers to animate their cups. Never before had Red Cup characters sung, skated, or otherwise "come alive". 

The 2011 cups are an emblem of Starbucks' commitment to digital innovation. Starbucks led the pack in mobile payments. It's now a forerunner in artificial intelligence. Its Digital Flywheel Program recommends items to customers, accounting for weather conditions, time of day, and whether it's a workday. 

Make digital innovation part of your strategy. Dedicate time to researching new technologies and brainstorming ways you can leverage new and existing technology to drive more immersive customer experiences.

3. Foster diversity in the workplace and beyond.  

In 2016, Starbucks unveiled a green -- not red -- holiday cup. The designer, Shogo Ota from Japan, described the cup: "The fashion designer. Nurse. He's from Zimbabwe. Urugua. My wife's grandma. I wanted to draw everyone in one line". By literally connecting people of different backgrounds, the cup emphasized Starbucks' commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

Starbucks continually strives to maintain a diverse and inclusive workplace. 43 percent of U.S. employees are minorities. Starbucks also outwardly salutes diversity. As part of its Race Together Initiative, baristas were encouraged to write "Race Together" on customers' cups and engage in conversations about race. 

A diverse workforce will prime you for success. Ethnically-diverse companies are more likely to outperform their peers. Implement diversity hiring strategies. Partner with professional associations and university student groups dedicated to specific minority groups. As well, promote diversity in your workplace by launching diversity awareness training programs. 

4. Engage in co-creation with customers. 

As it turns out, the 2016 green cups were a tease. To design its real 2016 Red Cups, Starbucks solicited its customers. The company received more than 1,200 submissions. 13 winners were selected, including a Philadelphia-based hair stylist and a Germany-based college student. 

The 2016 Red Cups underscored Starbucks' longstanding history of engaging in co-creation with customers. Starbucks crowdsources product ideas from consumers. Free WiFi, cake pops, and the concoction that is affectionately known as the Mocha Coconut Frappuccino are all past submissions. 

More than 50 percent of Fortune 500 companies have made co-creation part of their innovation strategies. No company is too small to realize the benefits of co-creation. Effective co-creation requires a readiness to listen to customers even when their feedback is at odds with your preconceptions. Actively solicit feedback and ideas from customers via contests, social media promotions, or other feedback channels. 

5. Personalize the customer experience. 

This year, Starbucks' initial release of Red Cups were -- gasp -- white (the second release of cups are red). Customers are encouraged to color in the cups. Many Starbucks locations have been outfitted with colored pencils that customers can borrow. 

This year's cups highlight Starbucks' commitment to personalized customer experiences. Baristas have long inscribed cups with customers' names. Customers can also freely customize drink options -- many of which have become items on Starbucks' "Secret Menu". Thanks to a partnership with Spotify, customers can even influence a store's playlist. "Think of it like slipping a note to the D.J." 

Strive to craft more personalized customer experiences. 59 percent of customers say that personalization influences their purchasing decisions. Leverage all data at your disposal and aim to personalize every customer touch point. When a customer visits your website, use their past search history to offer personalized recommendations. In email campaigns, leverage customers' purchase history to serve up personalized content. 

This year's cup also highlights themes espoused by Red Cups of yore. The sleeve features the words "Give Good", a reminder of Starbucks' community focus. The advertisement features two females about to kiss, as well as a white female holding hands with a male wearing a taqiyah (a head covering frequently worn by Muslims), reminders of Starbucks' commitment to diversity.

In 2015, amidst the most famous Red Cup controversy, many people flocked to Twitter, responding with the hashtag ItsJustACup. 

But every annual Starbucks Red Cup is much more than a cup. The designs are powerful reminders of what will empower Starbucks to continue to brew for many more holiday seasons to come. 

Published on: Dec 1, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.