Loyalty Is a Two-Way Street at Starbucks

What defines loyalty in the customer-brand relationship? Until this week, Starbucks defined it as the number of times the customer bought a cup of coffee; buy 12 cups and you get one for free. The retailer has now re-defined loyalty as the amount of money spent. This has caused upset among some of its “loyal” customers, who now must purchase 32 cups of coffee to get that free cup. Starbucks apparently was inspired by certain airlines — Delta and United — that now award loyalty points based on the amount of dollars spent, and not on the number of miles traveled. This might telegraph as: We want your money but we don’t want you.

The Starbucks switch was at least partly motivated by profits; obviously it is more profitable to motivate its most profitable customers. However, it also suggests a change in culture. As reported in The New York Times, the Starbucks loyalty program previously was premised on a warmer, fuzzier idea, as articulated by a Starbucks marketing manager in a 2012 blog post: “At Starbucks, our rewards program comes from a different philosophy. At its simplest, we like seeing you, regardless of whether your purchase is a short-brewed coffee or four Venti White Chocolate Mochas. My Starbucks Rewards is designed to show our appreciation simply for stopping by.”

This would be consistent with the way Starbucks famously welcomes everyone to hang out as long as they like at their stores, even if they buy nothing at all. Sadly, such “customers” are the poor cousins of those who gamed the Starbucks loyalty program by asking cashiers to ring up each item separately to artificially inflate their number of visits. This subterfuge also caused lines to slow, making the Starbucks experience worse for everyone else.

The Starbucks-customer relationship in total calls into question the very meaning of “loyalty,” and whether it even exists in a commercial context. As the Times article notes: “Starbucks fell into a trap that is common with loyalty programs: establishing not just an exchange relationship with its customers based on mutual benefit, but a communal relationship based on mutual caring and support … If customers are going to take a ‘hey, it’s just business’ approach to their relationship with Starbucks, they should expect the company to do the same — and it has.”

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