The Starbucks App: Successfully Leveraging a Mobile Platform

Starbucks’s innovations on caffeinated beverages and strong lifestyle brand have made it one of the most iconic consumer companies in the world; it is the premium-economy café experience that has massively influenced the coffee culture of the past 20 years. It was one of the first beverage brands to create a mobile application, all the way back in 2009. Now, the mobile app has grown to encompass a variety of functions for its users, and bizarrely, it is currently the most popular mobile payment method as of 2018, beating out Apple Pay.

Before we explore what makes its mobile app so successful, let’s touch on their overarching business model. Starbucks has perfected and commoditized the café experience. In the United States, the décor, menu, and even music selection of a standalone Starbucks is distinctively designed but ubiquitous across stores. The national fervor surrounding the seasonal reintroduction of popular drinks like the Pumpkin Spice Latte is just one example of how Starbucks has leveraged brand equity to drive massive growth.

But beneath the uniformity, Starbucks has learned from and adapted to the whims and wants of their customers. Pretty much every aspect of a drink can be customized: the number of shots of espresso, amount of flavoring syrup, choice of milk or its substitutes, and more. Customers can walk into any Starbucks in the US and expect to order their favorite drink with their favorite accoutrements.

A cohesive brand experience makes every effort to represent the company’s value proposition in a compelling way. The Starbucks app accomplishes this by making it more efficient and delightful to participate in the lifestyle that Starbucks proposes, whether in the process of ordering drinks or loyalty reward programs. Beyond the great user experience of the app, its usage numbers prove just how successfully it fulfills this mandate. We’ll look at the two major features of the Starbucks app, mobile ordering and Starbucks Rewards, and highlight how they deliver and enhance the value proposition using mobile innovations.

Mobile Ordering and Payment

Starbucks was among the first to introduce a mobile ordering system, taking advantage of the already large user-base it had accumulated over the years and seeing the opportunity to make their lives easier by making ordering quick and efficient.

Starbucks store uniformity allows for greater convenience, as there’s no need to worry about menu variation; mobile order and payment is its logical evolution, skipping the hassle of queuing and ordering in person. The UX for mobile ordering is easy and convenient, done in a few quick taps. The interface of the app takes after the whimsical visual identity unique to the Starbucks brand. The Starbucks app digitizes the lifestyle brand, and the customer accesses the physical reality of the experience by picking up their order in the store.

The support goes both ways: because the customer can expect the same uniform experience at every store, they can rest assured that a mobile order placed at any store will have the same result. In this respect, the mobile app elevates the brand experience by becoming deeply integrated with the brand identity, and vice versa.

However, arguably the most powerful part of the mobile ordering experience is the in-depth customization options that are available. A physical menu that tried to include every single customization option that was available for every drink would be impossible. However, a mobile interface (designed correctly) is perfectly suited for displaying this array of optionality. Every component of the drink can be adjusted to the customer’s taste, even components that they may not even have known was able to be adjusted.

Additionally, in mobile ordering, previous drink orders are automatically presented as the first choice for new orders — Starbucks knows that people tend to stick to their favorite orders. Other favorite drinks can easily be saved with the heart toggle.In this respect, the app not only makes the customization process easier, but elevates it to a new level completely. The well-crafted and polished user experience of their mobile order process shows that Starbucks understands the value that a seamless experience can have.

Starbucks Rewards: Building Brand Loyalty

The concept of a brand loyalty program is nothing new, and certainly, Starbucks Rewards is not the most exciting or interesting program that exists today. However, what Starbucks Rewards lacks in eye-popping rewards, it more than makes up for in the way that it is integrated into its brand experience.

For most consumer brands, loyalty programs often feel like an afterthought. Customers get some form of points for spending, and they can redeem these points for discounts or free products. Unless the store is somewhere the customer very frequently shops at, it is easy to lose track of what points were accrued where. Additionally, the process of earning and spending points is often lackluster — usually a result of the brand introducing programs copied from more successful examples without considering how to make the experience compelling or unique.

Starbucks Rewards and its integration with the mobile app buck this trend. Within the Starbucks app, Rewards progress is easily tracked, and customers are offered alluring incentives for consistent spending. The combination of convenience and gamification is what puts them ahead of their competitors in the mobile consumption game and demonstrates a great understanding of the Starbucks value proposition.

Rewards stars can be earned at any location and redeemed at any location. The star tracker is displayed at the home page, reminding a customer of their progress every time they open the app. By featuring this screen first, customers are quickly updated on whether they have a reward available, or how far away they are from their next reward. No more having to wait until you’re already ordering to find out.

The integration with the mobile app makes it so that anyone who wants to use mobile ordering is automatically signed up for the Rewards program. It shows that the Rewards program is not just an afterthought of their loyalty strategy; rather, Rewards is deliberately integrated as a centerpiece feature of their mobile strategy, one that makes mobile ordering more than just convenient, but also satisfying.

Another common flaw among average loyalty programs is their lack of customization for the customer’s habits. All spending is treated the same, and all customers are restricted to the same ways of redemption. Starbucks Rewards rejects this inflexible paradigm, instead designing their program with their customers’ unique tastes in mind.

The first way they do this is with the idea of the “Star Dash.” These are bonuses that grant customers more stars for buying a certain number of drinks in a certain amount of time. Star Dashes are opt-in, meaning that customers must choose to accept this “quest” of consumption. Each Star Dash has its own mini-tracker, sometimes with its own milestones that offer partial rewards. The content of the Star Dash is also dependent on the customer’s own drink preferences: for example, I almost exclusively drink cold brews from Starbucks, and most of my Star Dashes are based on ordering a certain number of cold brews consecutively for several days.

100 stars is equivalent to ordering 50 dollars worth of stuff. For spending about 30 dollars over 7 days, that’s pretty good!

Such personalized bonus offerings wouldn’t be possible without a mobile platform that centralizes a customer’s drink habits, advertises available opt-in Star Dashes, and allows customers to monitor their Star Dash progress. The opt-in aspect is important as well, as customers are likely more incentivized by goals they set for themselves. The app gives push notifications reminding its users of ongoing Star Dash quests, making it even easier to keep up. This gamified method of rewards shows that Starbucks knows how to leverage the mobile platform to introduce more addictive ways of rewarding their customers.

The second way is in Rewards redemption. Starbucks recently added milestones for redemption — now, people have even more flexibility in how they spend their stars. The redemption tiers incentivize both casual fans and hardcore daily drinkers of Starbucks to engage with the Rewards program, as both low and high amounts of spending can be rewarded. Generally, the more stars that a person saves up, the better the eventual rewards could be — at 400 stars, or about 200 dollars of spending (less if Star Dashes are leveraged), one can redeem for entire bags of coffee and accessories like tumblers or coffee mugs.

Essentially, not only is the Starbucks Rewards experience an excellent one on its own terms, it is further enhanced by the mobile app it is native to. Starbucks has effectively utilized the mobile platform to offer a loyalty program that is both convenient and engaging, enticing its customers to form the kind of daily habits that make Starbucks so profitable.

Final Thoughts

The Starbucks mobile experience should be one that its competitors look to take notes on. It’s the most popular mobile payment app for many reasons, and it’s not likely it will be displaced from this position anytime soon due to the subtle ways the app is able to hook and retain users.

Of course, there are ways that the Starbucks app could improve: for example, Starbucks should reaffirm its commitment to environmentalism by making it possible for people to use reusable cups when mobile ordering. However, as it stands, the ways that the app both delivers the value proposition and further elevates it to the next level is the kind of mobile experience that most consumer brands would kill for. Hopefully, as the mobile revolution slowly becomes integrated into the paradigms of even the slowest legacy enterprises, we will see the Starbucks mobile model flourish and prevail in making the customer experience seamless and convenient.

Harvard ’20. Writing about tech and media.