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How Starbucks Blends Marketing And Tech

Its holiday iPhone app shows how innovating for customers is a collaborative effort under the leadership of CIO Stephen Gillett, InformationWeek's IT Chief of the Year.

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Starbucks' new holiday season smartphone app shows how the lines between marketing and technology teams are blurring. And it shows that technology teams must be ready to move at speeds much faster than are required for the typical IT project.

Alexandra Wheeler, the VP in charge of Starbucks' global digital marketing group, has been blurring those lines since joining the company in 2006. One of her first big projects was My Starbucks Idea, which uses a online platform to solicit ideas from customers. Her group also guides the company's Facebook strategy.

In July Wheeler's team came up with an idea to do an augmented reality app for the holiday season. By pointing an iPhone or Android smartphone camera at one of the company's red holiday cups, a character on the phone would appear to ski, run, or move in some way on the cup, bridging the digital and physical worlds.

But the cups were already done, so there couldn't be anything on them to trigger the app, like a QR code. The company had never done anything like augmented reality. And the deadline was absolute--the app had to go live in mid-November.

Starbucks Mobile Holiday App

Wheeler brought the idea to Starbucks' Digital Ventures group, which is in charge of overall mobile strategy, and it worked through the platform and policy questions raised by the app, which the company calls Cup Magic. For example, the group had to decide if Cup Magic would be its own app or just a feature added to the existing Starbucks iPhone app. (It decided on the standalone route. ) Starbucks' digital marketing group drove the design, working with an outside agency experienced in augmented reality while coordinating with IT and Digital Ventures as needed. It's typical of the fuzzy lines Starbucks' Digital Ventures, marketing, and IT organizations deal with all the time.

The group made the deadline, launching Cup Magic in mid-November. The team figured out how to trigger the app without any code on the cups and make it work with other holiday items, like its Christmas blend coffee bags. They added e-commerce with an option to send a gift card from the app, and social by letting people share the characters they uncovered via Facebook. Cup Magic isn't as groundbreaking as Starbucks' mobile payment app; it's more fun than functional, and "we learned a lot," says Digital Ventures general manager Adam Brotman. If it gets enough use this Christmas, don't be surprised to see an update well before next holiday season. "It can live on," Brotman says. "It can live in other holidays and periods."

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David Wachter
David Wachter,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/25/2012 | 9:32:30 PM
re: How Starbucks Blends Marketing And Tech
What's most notable in this story is reflected in the comment..."And it shows that technology teams must be ready to move at speeds much faster than are required for the typical IT project."

From my experience Starbucks is an exception in this regard and the majority of companies still struggle with the push-me-pull-you dynamic between the innovative nature of marketing and the risk-adverse requirements of IT.

It would be interesting to know more about how Starbucks is making this odd couple relationship work.

David Wachter
CMO @Hivemine
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