Putting the ‘Star’ in Starbucks: Getting Digital Right

Starbucks Store

Image from: Starbucks Coffee / Costa Developers

Coffee: the drug of choice for busy professionals, sleep-deprived college students, Twitter bio writers, and me. The caffeinated landscape is filled with brands, brews, and beans — but it’s safe to say that nobody has quite the stronghold over the cafe market than Starbucks.

How does Starbucks get digital right? Let’s take a look.

Cultivating a Cultural Phenomenon through Email Marketing

The first digital strength is holiday-specific, but Starbucks’ seasonal success is anything but temporary. The coffee connoisseur’s holiday promotions go above and beyond by creating a cultural sensation, not a passing marketing stunt. (In fact, Starbucks’ “Red Cup Season” is anticipated year-round — devoted fans have even created a countdown page, complete with fan-driven Twitter campaigns).

Starbucks has a holistic way of approaching the holiday season involving large design teams that work on themed subscription emails, the famed “red cups,” product packaging, and a variety of advertisements. These themes tie seasonal products (such as pumpkin, peppermint, and gingerbread-flavored drinks; Thanksgiving and Christmas roasting blends; and themed mugs or appliances) to their annual marketing traditions and foster a caffeinated culture of holiday cheer. 

The impact of carefully thought-out strategy can be seen in the holiday hikes in their online traffic, as seen in the table below.

Monthly UVs Starbucks

I know what you’re thinking. That proves nothing, right? Well, take a look at where Starbucks.com’s incoming traffic comes from.

A strong portion of their incoming traffic comes from the email branches of Google and Yahoo, suggesting that many subscribers click-through promotional emails sent by Starbucks. For a company with a strong ecommerce business as well as popular in-person franchises, strong clickthrough rates can involve consumers purchasing products online, or taking coupons in-store.

Monthly Incoming Traffic Starbucks

Check out these beautiful email promotions that I’ve received from Starbucks — see for yourself how their design strategy promotes clickthroughs!

This is a small sample of the emails I’ve received through my own subscriptions. Starbucks is diligent in sending them, yet not so overzealous that I find myself annoyed. Why? I think it’s due to their stellar email subject lines and commitment to relevant content.

A Powerfully Digital Rewards Program

The second main contributor to Starbucks’ success is their rewards program (which one can become an official, Gold Card-carrying member of). All of the coffee company’s gift cards are re-loadable and can be registered online. Consumers can gain points-per-purchase towards free items, extra discounts, and membership discounts. Tiered levels of membership benefits also inspire more purchases.


Image from: Gold Card / The Starbucks Blog

The program is largely hosted online, but also has strong mobile capabilities. Gift card balances can also be accessed & updated via Starbucks’ mobile app — and one can even pay for drinks with a digital barcode. The seamless integration of the mobile app into Starbucks Rewards services is certainly commendable! It provides an excellent, unified cross-device experience and capitalizes on digital opportunities.

Now, the iOS version of the Starbucks app offers greater functionality and more interesting features such as digital tipping and a customizable personal drinks menu — but the core payment options are available on either platform. 

One way to know how popular the rewards program is to check Starbucks’ search referrals. Last month’s searches for starbuck’s digital presence came up in several different iterations in the website’s top 50 search keywords.

Daily Referrals Starbucks

A Cohesive Experience

Long story short, Starbucks’ success in #GettingDigitalRight comes from closely integrating their offline/online marketing initiatives and creating a seamless (and real-life) user experience. Their digital strategy seems quite complementary of their brand strategy, and vice versa.

Their data usage isn’t perfect, of course (Starbucks admits that understanding the vast amounts of data they’ve invested in isn’t always easy), but they’re consistently taking steps in the right direction. Understanding their data to better tailor their already solid digital strategy would be something they can do to continue getting digital right!

What do you think about Starbucks’ digital marketing strategy? Let us know in the comments below, or take a look at Compete PRO data to learn more.

Starbucks Rewards

About Johanna Gunawan:
A Political Science/International Affairs sophomore at Northeastern University, Johanna joins Millward Brown Digital as the spring '14 Digital Marketing Co-op. Apart from her interest in digital infrastructure and her majors; Johanna enjoys absurd quantities of imported coffee, haggling for cheap flights, and constantly editing her website. Find her on Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn.