The History and Evolution of Starbucks for Life

On December 2, 2014, there came out of Seattle, Washington the news of a promotion by Starbucks Coffee that would add another meaning to the Christmas holiday season. That promotion was a prize giveaway called Starbucks for Life. It’s formal name was the Starbucks “It’s a Wonderful Card Ultimate Giveaway” but everyone knew that name wouldn’t stick in the minds of the public. But while Starbucks for Life sounds better, the truth is no one would be getting Starbucks Coffee for life. That wasn’t on the prize list.

The actual description of the Grand Prize was clearly stated on its website. Each winner (there were 10 total winning codes) will receive a daily credit for 30 years for their choice of either one free food item or one beverage item. Use it or lose it. Alcoholic drinks were excluded from the list of items. The winner would have to claim their daily prize at a participating Starbucks store in the United States. So not only was the idea of a lifetime supply of Starbucks coffee off the table, but according to the website if the Starbucks in your area was not a participating store then you would have to go elsewhere to collect your freebie.

In addition to the 10 Grand Prizes, there were 482,000 other prizes of lesser value in the form of Instant Winners. The contest would run through January 2, 2015. There were two ways to enter. You had to pay with a Starbucks card or pay using the Starbucks mobile app from your smartphone. You would then get a receipt that had an entry code, and you went online to the Starbucks website to check if your code was a winner. Each person was limited to a maximum of two entry codes per day. One final limitation is that you could only win one prize per day.

If you happened to be one of the Grand Prize winners you would also be given a 10 karat gold Starbucks card with your name engraved on it. This was the identifier that you had 30 years of free coffee coming at any participating Starbucks store. There were actually 14 of these gold Starbucks cards made. Ten were reserved for the 10 winners in the United States, three for winners in Canada, and one for the winner in the United Kingdom. The total value of the gold card and the 30 year freebies was estimated at $54,000 per winner.

In case you were wondering, yes, all of the 14 Grand Prizes were awarded and claimed. In all, an estimated 2.3 million people would enter the store and the contest in the predetermined 31 day period. But there is an interesting aftereffect that came from one of the winners. Because she went into the same Starbucks store every day for a year, she became familiar with the employees and also treated many of her co-workers to a coffee. She also said she went out on more coffee breaks, though no official response from management was available.

2015

The 2015 game was announced to begin on December 8, 2015. It would run until January 11, 2016 with the same basic rules. However, the number of Grand Prizes was reduced to 5 in the United States and two in Canada. Another change was that items from Starbucks Evening menu were excluded from the Grand Prize winner’s choice of item. The company also provided a short list of the other prizes.

  • 45 winning customers (25 in the U.S., 20 in Canada) get Starbucks for a year
  • 225 winning customers (125 in the U.S., 100 in Canada) get Starbucks for a month
  • 750 winning customers (500 in the U.S. 250 in Canada) get Starbucks for a week
  • The total value of each Grand Prize jumped to $54, 275, including the gold winner’s card.

Sharon Rothstein, the Global Chief Marketing Officer of Starbucks in 2016 announced a new way of playing the game which eliminated the sometimes messy and confusing codes printed on the bottom of a Starbucks receipt. With the majority of Starbucks customers using their smartphones to pay with via the Starbucks app, the gameplay moved over to an online venue. Every purchase made at Starbucks would earn the customer a game play. The goal was to either get a Bonus Star or collect pieces on the online Game Board which would give the player a chance for one of the biggest prizes.

One of the more potentially lucrative benefits for employees of Starbucks in 2015 was that there was one separate contest where a Starbucks employee would win the same Starbucks for Life Grand Prize. The winner was an employee in Canada.

2016

The Starbucks for Life of 2016 brought with it an increase in the number of Instant Winners (850,000). The number of Grand Prizes remained at 5 in the United States but the total value of the prize increased to $56,575. The total value of all the prizes had reached an approximate retail value of just under $1 million. Starbucks decided to amp up the excitement of the contest by announcing that the first 2 million customers who registered for the game online would receive 3 free Bonus Stars. Each player was limited to one free award. The first day of the contest that marked the beginning of a week was set to Tuesday.

The Starbucks for Life Effect

Up until 2016, the Starbucks for Life game was somewhat of a novelty. But by 2017 the purpose of the promotion seemed to change. It was great for the company brand, and the game made Starbucks a household name during the holiday season. This is an especially tough thing to do when customers are barraged with advertising from everywhere. Stopping in at your local Starbucks was becoming more of a holiday ritual whether you were working or not. Traffic to its website soared during the month long promotion. People who rarely stopped in at a Starbucks during the year were demanding their media outlets run coverage of the beginning and ending dates, and any changes to the rules or prizes.

2017

For the third consecutive year, the number of Grand Prizes remained the same. At this point it looks like 5 will be the maximum number of Grand Prizes offered for the foreseeable future. But there was a major change to the game rules. No longer did you need to buy anything from Starbucks to have a chance to win a Grand Prize. All that was required was a valid email address. You could go to the Starbucks for Life website, enter your email address, and you were automatically entered.

They also changed the way customers could earn those desired Bonus Stars without having to spend a dime. There were contests such as writing a short story about your favorite Starbucks employee, or even something as simple as a story about a good deed you did. The company had realized the hidden promotional potential in many aspects of this Starbucks for Life concept. Even for people who didn’t drink coffee or set one foot inside a Starbucks store, they knew of the game and wanted in on it.

Since the game had become a holiday tradition, the media was asking for more information on the game, including what prizes were up for grabs. Here is the list from one website.

  • Starbucks for a Year – 15 Winners
  • Starbucks for 6 Months – 25 Winners
  • Starbucks for 3 Months – 50 Winners
  • Starbucks for a Month – 100 Winners
  • Starbucks for a Week – 500 Winners
  • 125 Bonus Stars – 30,000 Winners
  • 75 Bonus Stars – 75,000 Winners
  • 50 Bonus Stars – 130,000 Winners
  • 10 Bonus Stars – 1.3 million Winners
  • A Starbucks mug or tumbler – 2,000 Winners
  • 1 Holiday Food Item – 35,000 Winners
  • 1 Holiday Drink – 5,000 Winners

Notice that to maximize its promotional potential, Starbucks was giving away 2,000 (holiday?) mugs and tumblers. It was the perfect gift for the regular coffee drinker.

2018

A writer for Forbes magazine described the 2018 Starbucks for Life game as a ‘frenzy.” Having never played a single Starbucks for Life online game since its inception, the author had decided this one time to see what all the excitement was about. If you have avoided playing the game for any reason, this author nicely sums up why there are so many people playing – and why it is realistically called a “frenzy.” Starbucks has basically created a video game that is just as addictive as any Las Vegas slot machine or table game. You might think of it as having a chance to go to Las Vegas only once a year, but you get to pull the lever on the slot machine that gives you a chance to win $1 million – for free.

Coffee drinkers understand this feeling as much as the gambler who makes their annual junket to Las Vegas. It’s fun, there is an air of excitement just by playing, and who knows? – you just might hit the jackpot. The fact that it is free is even a bigger adrenaline booster. Starbucks for Life has become its own online marketing machine, and that includes its presence on social media.

Back to the author of the article, who admits they generally will stop in at a Starbucks 2 or 3 times a week. Since playing the game they find themselves stopping in every day the contest has been going on. Back in 2015 the company created a game experience that was described as “more engaging.” The change resulted in a growing media coverage and an increase in the number of visits the average Starbucks customer drops in every week.

Now we will move on to the new changes in the gameplay.

The frenzy has resulted in Starbucks publishing a list of weekly Starbucks for Life “events” and the prizes that can be won each week. These events are called “challenges” and allow customers to earn extra gameplays each week the challenge is completed. Each Challenge has two tiers, with the second tier earning you 3 times as many gameplays. As for the prizes, they have largely remained the same with the exception of 2,000 Starbucks for Life Coffee Collection replacing the Starbucks mug or tumbler.

2019

So what will this year’s game be like? Regular holiday Starbucks customers know that their Peppermint Mocha flavor will be available, but beyond that it seems it is hard to improve on the results the last five years have brought. But nothing is perfect, and there are a few quirks about playing the game that you may have yet to hear about.

According to the Starbucks website:

  • Due to the number of entries received they cannot change any registration information unless you win a prize.
  • Bonus Stars that you win during the Starbucks for Life game will expire in 6 months
  • There is a random drawing for all unawarded prizes with a value of more than $25. That drawing is held after the official end of the game in January. A total of three drawings will be held.

Unless the current annual promotion slows down the influx of new visitors or repeat business by exiting customers, there does not seem to be a good reason to change the game. Why try to fix something that is not broken? The model Starbucks may be playing on is that of the National Football League: offer the customer a limited supply of a product and have them looking forward to the next time it comes around. A five week game that seems to have evolved into a holiday tradition is hard to improve upon.


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