What You can Learn From Starbucks Coffee’s Blogging Boo-Boos

Oh Starbucks. Why are you walking away from the conversation?

As an every-day SBUX addict, I was researching their latest loyalty program – the Starbucks Gold Card (which, apparently, is black – not gold. Um…?)

For $25, I would get 10% off most purchases, free wi-fi for two hours, access to exclusive sales and what they call “member recognition” (strike one: I have to pay $25 on top of my daily coffee purchases to be “recognized?”).

So, like a good social media chick, I went to the Starbucks Blog where they posted a “sneak peek” of the Gold card (note: this blog post is gone and wasn’t even redirected to a custom 404 page. Bad Starbucks!). Although the tone and feel is a little too…corporate…for my taste, the original blog post did a good job outlining the benefits.

But then the problems began…

Comments started rolling in. People were (understandably) confused.

Did they need to combine their new Gold card with their regular Rewards card to get maximum discounts?

Why does someone need to pay to get a discount?

What kind of cool insider “member recognition” benefits will they recognize?

And why did the official Starbucks blog post specifically say, “so don’t be surprised if your barista isn’t up-to-speed yet!” (Great…so that means I have to pay for a discount AND educate my barista?)

So, let’s examine where Starbucks went wrong.

  1. There were 128 comments about the initial post. Starbucks responded twice. That’s it – even while there was a whirl of controversy going on. If you read through the comments, you’ll notice one customer who was incredibly excited about receiving a Gold Card get more and more discouraged with the Starbucks customer service process.  At no time did anyone step in and address his concerns. I would venture to say that the process basically turned a would-be evangelist into a cynical detractor.
  2. The official Starbucks response made it seem like a very elite group of people received a free card – and the rest of the registered Starbucks card users didn’t count.  Saying “Those that received the Gold card early were among our most dedicated and consistent registered card users,” is a slap in the face to people who (according to comments) spend thousands of dollars every year with Starbucks.  Heck, even I was miffed that I didn’t get a free offer – I’m in a Starbucks every day, sometimes twice a day.  It would have been much easier (and less offensive) to say that people were “randomly chosen.” People won’t argue with random…but they will feel cheated if they don’t feel “special” enough.
  3. They should have had a chart (or some kind of visual) showing the potential savings.  The big objection Starbucks needs to overcome is “I don’t want to shell out $25 for a loyalty card.” For many people (me included) that is a big enough stop sign to halt the consideration process in its tracks. If people are in coffee-buying mode, they probably aren’t in number-crunching mode…especially for early-morning Starbucks visitors who need that first cup to wake up. It would have been more effective to show in dollars and cents how the card would pay for itself in less than three months.
  4. Saying that I, as a Gold Card member, would have to “educate my barista” is just wrong, wrong, wrong.  From a corporate communications standpoint, you’re basically saying that either (1) Starbucks can’t get their act together to train their baristas properly or (2) their baristas are too slow to “get it (which is not the case – I heart my Starbucks baristas!) Either way, way to make the corporation look bad.  If I’m paying $25 for a loyalty card, I shouldn’t have to tell my barista how to give me my discount. I’m typically hitting my store at 6am sharp – that’s not exactly the time that I’m eagle-eyed and in the mood to fight for an additional 10% off.

Unfortunately, this isn’t new behavior for the coffee giant. Lisa Wehr discussed how Starbucks didn’t update their 2007 holiday podcasts, calling it a clear sign that “Starbucks was falling out of touch with their customers.”

I congratulate Starbucks with trying new forms of marketing to connect with customers. They have a loyal following (me among them,) great brand recognition and their partners are awesome.

However, just as Starbucks would never let a barista walk away in the middle of a conversation with a customer, they should frequently check their blog posts and keep the conversation (or “connection” in Starbucks-speak) flowing – NOT walk away from a post just ’cause it’s posted.

Additionally, Starbucks should carefully consider their blog post wording – as experienced copywriters know, how you say what you say is exceptionally important. An innocuous phrase like “our most dedicated and consistent..customers” can actually alienate people if used the wrong way

Part of Starbucks new mission statement specifically focuses on “our customers” and “our neighborhoods.”  Now, it’s time to redefine “customers” and “neighborhoods” to encompass online communities and provide the same level of communication you’d find in any retail store. THAT would keep with the customer-service oriented Starbucks corporate culture…and it would help their online customers feel heard.

5 replies
  1. Charnell says:

    I’m so happy to have stumbled across this post. These are the exact thoughts that many of us Starbucks customers have had since they’ve announced this Gold Card.

    I have visited Starbucks 3 times a day, every day for the past several years. This amounts to me spending approximately $272.70 per month on just my drink alone ($3.03/ea). Just within the last 13 months, my significant other who works with me now gets a daily drink at each visit, so now we’re spending approximately $648.00/mo ($7.20 each visit x 3 x 30).

    We visit the same Starbucks location each time, we know the employees and they know us well. Each visit they ask if we’ve purchased the Gold Card yet. My response everytime is, “Nope. I don’t feel that I should have to pay $25.00 for you to recognize me as a loyal customer.” They continue to push the card and I continue to respond with the exact same line.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for publicizing the “boo-boos” that we all see clearly (except for Starbucks apparently).

  2. Heather says:

    Hi, Charnell,

    You are very welcome. :) This is one of those interesting marketing situations where you know that Starbucks didn’t mean to be evil – but they also didn’t realize how some loyal customers would react to the news. It will be fascinating to see how they react to the controversy, and how they reach out to members of their online (and local) community.

    As an interesting side note, I tweeted this blog post to @mystarbucksidea and got an immediate response. They said that they were “working on a follow up to that post” – and acknowledged that it could have been done faster. So, the SBUX Twitter Group is definitely on the ball (good job, guys!). Now if Starbucks could just figure out their Gold Card Policies…

  3. Karri Flatla says:

    I hadn’t heard about the Gold Card promotion … uh, still waiting to find out what the benefits are of having a Starbucks card at all. Aside of that initial free beverage coupon I received in the mail. Oh wait, I think I might have also received some small discounts when I used it to purchase drinks. But who the heck keeps their receipts anyway?

    Speaking of conversing with customers, I follow SB on Twitter but I’m really not sure why. I think I’ve actually seen maybe less than 5 drive by tweets in the entire time I’ve been on Twitter. I don’t check Twitter by the minute but they don’t exactly have a “presence” there. What’s up with that?

    Losing touch indeed. And oh how I dearly love my Caramel Machiattos (X-Hot, 2 Pumps, No Foam thanks).

    Great post.

  4. susan says:

    well said. I just got my gold card yesterday after contemplating for several months. what pushed me over the edge was when I asked my barista one more time just to clarify, “I get free soymilk with this too right?” and she said “well, yes if you register it online.” I used the card this morning after registering and got my 10% off but still charged for the soy. Needless to say I am upset. I thought I would be saving $.84cents per day but now realize it will only be .44cents, plus shelled out $25. I could have just stuck with the free card to get my free soy. What is really messed up is that it is now May 2009, you would think the baristas would have the facts down by now.


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