Starbucks Gives Away Ice Cream and Gains Facebook Cred

Starbucks gets it. They are a company that knows their customer and knows emotions. They don’t just sell coffee they sell a coffee experience. That experience used to be unique just a few years back, but has become common due to their hyper growth, but lest we forget they performed one of the greatest feats in business, transforming a commodity, coffee, into a premium good.

Now Starbucks, looking for more ways to grow, has branched into the super premium ice cream world. Without getting into whether I think this is a good idea or not for Starbucks in the long term, I can’t help but be impressed by the way in which they promoted the launch.

They built a Facebook app that is the best indirect advertising I have ever seen on a social network. The app’s sole purpose was to run a promotion where every hour 800 pints of the new ice cream were given away, totaling 20,000 pints a day, and 260,000 pints over the nearly 2 week campaign. Facebook users would visit the app every hour to see if they were quick enough to nab a pint from that hour’s allotment. They were then given the option to have the free voucher mailed to a friend or themselves. (The campaign has ended but you can find the app here

This is great on so many levels.

Starbucks is providing real value to people. They didn’t create a game where you throw ice cream at your friends, or give your friend a virtual pint of ice cream, they gave away the real product; for free, no strings attached. They could have given a lame discount and offered the promotion to more people, but Starbucks understands how powerful really free is, how it taps into deep human emotions.

The “free sample” is one of the oldest marketing techniques in existence and has been a cornerstone of new product launches for more than a half century. This elemental technique has endured because it benefits both consumers and marketer.  Consumers get something risk free and the marketer, rather than spend gobs of money on convincing consumers to buy something they don’t yet want, gets to short circuit the normal buying cycle and get their product directly in the hands of people.

The problem with the free sample technique is how to efficiently get in front of the customer so one can actually give the product away. Companies would hire people to stand in busy places and give away the product, but this doesn’t scale and the passers by may or may not be the target customers. Another approach was to buy advertising to promote the give away. Companies often spent millions promoting a campaign giving away only thousands of dollars worth of product. Both of these approaches are flawed, and limit the potential of the “free sample” technique. Facebook fundamentally changes the dynamics for the “free sample” and makes it remarkably efficient.

The Starbucks app consisted of a landing page, a way to “check” for an available coupon, and a way to give your mailing info for the free sample coupon. This app was not complicated, it didn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t have been. It could have been built for thousands of dollars. Starbucks used traditional PR techniques to alert people to the promotion, but once the ball was rolling it didn’t stop, because of the integration with News Feed people discovered the promotion and were clamoring for their chance to get a free pint of the new ice cream. Starbucks gained over 260,000 customer’s information and permission from many to communicate about future offers and new products.

Starbucks did something very powerful by combining an age old marketing technique with a fresh implementation. Giving away the product makes consumers happy, and Facebook allowed Starbucks to do just that at a scale and rock bottom marginal cost inconceivable just a few years ago. I hope more marketers wise up to the power of social services like Facebook. They are not just another place to put up a billboard, but a way to change the dynamics of reaching customers and spreading compelling information, in Starbucks’ case, a free pint of tasty ice cream.