Starbucks' Holiday Viral Effort Doubles as Social Experiment

'Cheer Pass' Tracking Device Looks to Spread Good Deeds and Coffee Message

By Published on .

CHICAGO ( -- Don't be surprised if sometime between now and Christmas a stranger gives you lift tickets in Denver, skating passes in Toronto or even free parking at a Michigan hospital.
Starbucks' 'cheer pass' is a numbered card that serves as a tracking device for the holiday effort's viral component. Click to see larger view.

They're certainly not your typical holiday-stocking stuffers, but Starbucks is using such happy acts to kick off its holiday marketing program. Starting today Starbucks is surprising Manhattan commuters with free subway MetroCards and warming Chicagoans with free movie tickets. The catch is Starbucks wants consumers to pass on their benevolence by performing a good deed for another person, say, to hold open a door or buy someone a cup of coffee. With each deed, the recipient is handed a "cheer pass," a numbered card that serves as a tracking device for the effort's viral component.

Tracking a 'chain of cheer'
As much social experiment as buzz campaign, Starbucks is hoping the cheer-pass recipients take the individually numbered cards and log on to the coffee chain's holiday microsite,, to share how and where they received the pass. The idea is to follow how long people can sustain the "chain of cheer." Of course, the site also will promote a trio of holiday coffee blends and other gifts consumers can buy through Starbucks.

"I'll be happy if we create a single cheer chain," said Brad Stevens, VP-marketing for Starbucks. He said he's more interested in the qualitative response, as the effort has no traditional marketing metrics tied to it.

Starting with a Times Square kickoff event led by Starbucks President-CEO Jim Donald, the marketer intends to distribute about 10,500 passes daily around the U.S., and up to a half million passes through the next eight weeks. The marketer is dispatching dozens of "brand ambassadors" from its regional U.S. and Canada marketing teams to carry out the events.

Other tidings include free samples of the chain's holiday beverages, bags of coffee and $5 Starbucks Cards. People also can download cheer passes from the microsite to e-mail and distribute to others.

Red Cup's third year
The cheer pass is the main viral component of the marketer's holiday Red Cup campaign, now in its third year. Last year's effort drew more than a million visitors. Other elements include out-of-home creative in 10 markets, national print ads, and events.

Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., handles advertising; Edelman, Los Angeles, handles public relations and Edelman Interactive Services created the cheer-pass microsite. Mr. Stevens wouldn't disclose spending.

Dave Howlett, VP-client services for Umbria, a marketing-intelligence company that analyzes the online community, called the cheer pass a novel concept. "I love the concept. The whole pay-it-forward thing," he said. "I could see people participating in that. I could also see a lot of discussion on blogs without people going to the website and going through that effort."

Good test of engagement
He noted that the success of viral efforts is usually based on how easy it is to use, and because this campaign involves two separate acts, it will test just how engaged Starbucks' customers are with that brand.

"Depending on how cumbersome they make it will impact the degree of participation," he said. "I'll be watching with a lot of curiosity because there has been so many of these viral efforts going on with people trying to create unique content and it gets passed around and the novelty is wearing off. It sounds like they're being innovative and pushing this to the next level, as opposed to creating yet another piece of novel content they hope will get forwarded around."
Most Popular
In this article: