Starbucks Hands Out Free Coffee to Voters

Starbucks launched a major TV effort during the weekend in hopes of driving much-needed customers to its coffee shops on Election Day. A 60-second TV spot says the chain will  give away a free, 12-oz. cup of coffee on Nov. 4 to those who vote.

The spot first aired during Saturday Night Live. It poses a series of questions against a simple backdrop that resembles a Starbucks coffee cup. The text reads: “What if we all cared enough to vote? Not just 54% of us, but 100% of us? What if we cared as much on Nov. 5 as we care on Nov. 4? Come into Starbucks on Nov. 4, tell us you voted, and we’ll proudly give you a tall cup of brewed coffee on us.” It ends with the tagline: “You & Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee.”

BBDO, New York, created the spot, which comes one month after Starbucks split with its lead agency of four years, Wieden + Kennedy, Portland, Ore. That agency also developed Starbucks’ “Pass the cheer” holiday ads last Christmas. The campaign, which began as a series of online ads, marked the coffee chain’s first entry into national TV advertising.

“We thought of the idea a day or two before it ran, and so, it demanded a certain simplicity. The message was so powerful we didn’t need a lot of artificiality around it,” said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO, North America.

The new Election Day ad is Starbucks’ second major national TV effort. The goal is to “support our customers who care about the same things we do and who want to make a difference.  Placing a TV ad on SNL was simply an opportunity to reach the broadest audience possible in the shortest time,” said Starbucks rep Jenny McCabe, adding that the effort was a “one-time spot.”

Starbucks is also running the ad on Facebook’s application toolbar. Copy reads: “Visit Starbucks on Tuesday, tell us you voted, and get a free brewed coffee. It’s our way of saying, ‘thanks for doing your part.'”

Starbucks joins Krispy Kreme and Ben & Jerry’s, among others that are offering free servings of their signature products on Election Day. For Starbucks, however, the initiative is a way to get some publicity, as the coffee chain has struggled with declining sales in a down economy. Following the chain’s first-ever drop in quarterly profits (a $6.7 million decrease for the period ending June 29), Starbucks has rolled out a three-tiered value messaging strategy, which includes a Costco tie-in and a Gold Card loyalty program. An October 2008 study of 2,500 coffee drinkers by Morgan Stanley found that Starbucks was losing customers to high prices; 65% of those surveyed said that lower prices would result in increased visits.

Starbucks spent $54 million on measured media last year and $28 million through August of this year (excluding online), per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Ron Paul, president of Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, said there’s a different reason behind the new ad. He said the ad is a continuation of Starbucks’ corporate and social responsibility mission, including a focus on sustainability initiatives and emphasis on using fair trade coffee.

“It’s a timely move and I think it was just designed to reinforce what they’ve been doing for years anyway,” Paul said.

Brand Keys founder Robert Passikoff said it’s a win-win strategy for Starbucks, whether the company sees this as a marketing opportunity or a chance to encourage good citizenship.

“Aligning themselves with the unprecedented buzz that’s surrounding this election is not a bad thing to do for this brand,” Passikoff said. “It generates good will, and the other side of the marketing equation: maybe you come in for a free cup of coffee and you end up buying something else.”