Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

How Solo Reinvented the Classic Red Party Cup and Embraced Brand Changes

Ever since I was in high school, I wanted to be part of the cool crowd. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I yearned to attend a party that used those classic red Solo cups. I associated the plastic red cups with having a wonderfully good time, and I wanted to be part of it. Sadly, being a part of that crowd didn’t ever happen for me in high school, but I did I finally have my moment in college at my first campus party.

The point I’m trying to make is not that I’m a party animal (because I’m far from it), but that red Solo cups are likened to college parties, back yard barbecues, and tailgating. When you think of the red Solo cup, you know there will be a good time. But the big question is, why red cups? Why do the red cups make up 60 percent of Solo Cup Company’s sales?

Nobody really knows for sure, but it’s speculated to be because Solo introduced the very first party cup in that color, so red just became the standard. It may also have something to do with red being a gender-less color that signifies intensity and energy — which is perfect for partiers.

Even though Solo is king of this market now, they come from somewhat humble beginnings. Solo Cup Company has been around since the great depression and has since grown into a global $1.6 billion company. It was founded in 1936 by Leo Hulseman on Chicago’s South Side as the Paper Container Manufacturing Company, where they manufactured cone-shaped paper drinking cups. Between the 1940s and 1950s, the Paper Container Manufacturing Company changed its name to the Solo Cup Company and introduced its newest creation, the wax cold cup, which is still used in the food service industry today.

Over the next sixty years, Solo Cup Company invented new items, went global, perfected current items, and even created artistic history. In the 1980s, Solo developed the well-known Traveler lid found in coffee shops all around the world. The design of this lid was so innovative that it actually became a part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art!

Beer Pong

Solo cups are staples in several popular games.

In 2009, Solo Cup Company made a big risky move: they squared the bottom of their classic red party cup. Representatives of the company said the change was made because it was becoming difficult distinguishing one red plastic cup from another. The company says the square design and newly added grips make it easier to hold and solves the slippery when wet problem. They also claim to not market their products for drinking games, however they’ve added strength and structure to the cups making me wonder if they knew it would appeal more to beer pong and flippy cup enthusiasts. Not a bad marketing move if you ask me. The cups will be used for these activities, so why not cash it on it?

Everyone has in some way been involved with a red Solo cup. They are dependable, recyclable, and recognizable and you can find them everywhere from homes, fast food restaurants, and even the White House. Red party cups even have songs about them.

What we can learn from Solo:

  • Embrace change and evolve gracefully. Solo has come a long way since manufacturing conical paper cups in the 1930s and 1940s, and their brand wouldn’t be as strong today if they hadn’t expanded their product catalog! Try to keep up with trends while staying true to your original purpose.
  • Distinguish yourself from the competition. The square-bottomed red cups separate Solo from competing brands even further. Find that quality that distinguishes you from competitors and play it up in advertisements as best you can.
  • Consider customers’ needs before making major changes. Solo does research on consumer habits before releasing new products for purchase, and you should do the same. If you don’t know what people are looking for, then how can you make the best decisions?

Can you remember your first red party cup experience? Have you seen the new square shaped cups? Do you like it, or prefer the original cylinder shape? Let us know in the comments below!

Image credit to Solo Cup Company on Facebook and SVTHERLAND.


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  1. Bret Bonnet

    Wow. Great post Jen.

    Who would have thought that square bottoms would have that much more of a marketing impact.

    I think Solo makes a “classy” product; and to think of it… I never go tailgating with out some red solo cups!


    • Jen

      Thanks Bret!

      I never party without them.


  2. amy

    What a fun post, Jen! I love your first giveaway, “Embrace change and evolve gracefully”. I hate when companies drastically change overnight into something that’s so radically different from what they started.

    I bought blue SOLO cups one time and it just felt weird drinking out of them. Now it’s red all the way! I really don’t have much of an opinion regarding square or round bottoms, it’s what’s in them that matters to me 😉

    • Jen

      I agree Amy. The square shape is fine with me, however the round shape was fine too. I have to say, though, I think the red cups are better than the other colors. You’re totally right, it’s different when it’s not red.

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    It was really smart of Solo not to resist the change in their brand. Yes, they might have an association with partying, but who doesn’t want to have a good time? At least by embracing the change, they can have (a little) control in how they promote their cups within that market.

    Regardless of the reason, I love the square bottoms! Much more sturdy and definitely a distinctive look. Great job, Solo! And lovely takeaways, Jen! I think too many brands and people (myself included) try to fight change. And while it’s nice to stick to what you know, you have to be flexible!

  4. Ellyn Gilmore

    I actually do remember my first solo cup moment but I’ll keep that too myself since it didn’t turn out too well. To tell you the truth I wouldn’t have thought about how much the cups do make me think of the college parties I used to go to, especially the beer pong. Can’t have beer pong without solo cups!! 🙂

    I love the country music version of the song… just wondering if the company really likes that they are associated with partying so much and if there is a way for them to branch out into other markets.

    Good post Jen!!

    • Jen

      Agreed, I have to say I like the country song much more than the rap songs. It’s actually kind of catchy and fun. I would party to that song with my Solo cup in hand. 😉

      I think Solo should embrace the party cup association. It’s would be more money in their pockets!

  5. Joseph Giorgi

    Great post, Jen! Those little red cups are classic. No party is complete without them.

    They’re always around, though not many people tend to think about them. We just buy them and use them without thinking twice about it. Kudos to Solo for creating such an iconic product!

  6. Jenna Markowski

    This is an awesome post, Jen! Of course I already knew that Solo was always associated with partying, but I never really thought about what that means for their brand. It’s so interesting how people automatically pair red cups with drinking — I’ve had friends ask me to untag them in pictures on Facebook just because there was a red cup in their hands!

    I am a big fan of the square-bottom design. In fact, while shopping for cups, I would usually just buy the cheapest ones, but the cheaper ones don’t have the square design, so I go with Solo every time! 🙂

  7. Jill Tooley

    I’m not sure why I gravitate toward the red Solo cups! Unless it’s a special holiday (like Halloween, where I’ll go with orange and black cups), I’ll opt for the classic red every time. Interesting!

    College parties weren’t my thing so I can’t say much there, but there were definitely red cups at any other type of party I attended. Also, my knowledge of beer pong and flippy cup is limited to what I’ve heard from others…but it wouldn’t be the same to play those games without Solo! 🙂

    I kind of like the square bottoms. It seems like they stand up better than the old ones!

  8. Eric

    It’s kind of remarkable how much thought – and even psychology – go into the design and marketing for Solo cups. Come to think of it, when I recall any college party, or even a family gathering, they’re almost always red, Solo cups that were used. Kudos to any company that can make something, and make it well, for so many years without the need to change, or better yet, anyone wanting them to change it. Neat stuff, Jen! Never would have known about any of this otherwise.

  9. Belle

    I am wondering what kind of financial agreement (if any) there is between Keith and Solo. I mean Solo is getting tons of free advertising! Does anyone out there kmow?

  10. Carolyn

    I am having my 50th birthday party and the theme is red solo cups. I am looking foward to seeing the guest when they walk in.

  11. Duste

    Please let me know how much a sleeve of 16 oz cups would be with the South Carolina Game Cocks logo on them???? and please don’t make orange cups….Orange is only good with traffic cones and jump suits….lol

    • Jill Tooley

      Hi, Duste. We don’t sell Solo cups, but we have plenty of stadium cups and other drinkware on our website if you wanted to take a look. Also, just an FYI, you’d have to prove (in writing) that you have the rights to reproduce the South Carolina logo if you wanted it printed on merchandise. Official logos are tricky. 🙁

      I’d suggest looking on their official website if you wanted cups with the South Carolina Game Cocks on them. Thanks for stopping by! Good luck.

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