"Just handling it makes you feel really special," said one buyer. "There is no better way to treat yourself," enthused another. "I love this item," wrote a third, adding, "I work hard for my money, and this is my Christmas gift to me." Were these online comments about Rolex's Cellini watch? Or Tiffany & Co.'s Victoria diamond pendant, perhaps?
Hardly. The froth (posted on Starbucks' retail page) was about the coffee chain's limited-edition holiday gift card—a slender slice of stainless steel in three colors, each encrusted with Swarovski crystals. Never mind that this $200 bit of bling only came with $50 worth of store credit, the champagne-colored run sold out in early December, long before most people started their shopping.
The sparkly cards appeared as part of Starbucks' Brilliant Collection, an assemblage of beverage-related gifts that differed little from Starbucks' usual store merch except for the addition of some shimmering crystals. But don't underestimate the power of these stones. The added sparkle enabled Starbucks to charge $74.95 for an otherwise unremarkable 12-ounce double-walled coffee traveler. A 16-ounce gold tumbler with a thick band of crystals carried a price tag of $99.95.
Starbucks wouldn't comment about the performance of its faceted fineries other than to say this year's cup collection included "real gold accents in the design" and that the Deep Blue Crystal gift card was still available "while supplies last." But at press time, Starbucks' website was already out of the cards, and eBay was doing a brisk resale trade at prices as high as $295.
The upshot: Apparently, a little bling can do a brand a lot of good.
In Starbucks' case, the apparent success of the crystal-studded gifts is a bit of a head-scratcher. After all, what do crystals have to do with coffee? Answer: Nothing. And that's probably why the idea works.
"Coffee at Starbucks has never been about the coffee, it's about the experience," said Martyn Tipping, partner at brand consultancy TippingGardner. "Starbucks is already a lifestyle brand, so adding crystals to the equation isn't that big of a stretch."
Tipping said Starbucks is only keeping up with the kind of status game it started itself. "There was a time when the Starbucks paper cup alone was a statement item," he said. Now that $8 lattes are the norm, Starbucks has to bring back the feeling of exclusivity, and crystal-studded accessories aren't a bad way to do it.
"If you can afford to pay $6 or $8 for a coffee, you might just want to buy a jewel-encrusted mug or gift card," said retail expert Pat Dermody, president of Retale. "Purchases like that are not driven by logic but rather by emotion. To be able to get something that is available only in a limited supply and vault yourself or the gift recipient into an exclusive set are powerful motivators for some people. There is no other reason."
Starbucks' partnership with Swarovski actually dates to the 2012 holiday season, when the chain produced a coffee-cup tree ornament. After that, demand apparently shifted to the real thing: In 2013, Starbucks put out a $150 coffee mug decorated with crystals—its entire stock sold out in about an hour and a half. This year's sparkly goods are simply building on an established formula.
Starbucks isn't the only brand to capitalize on the flash of crystals made by Swarovski (which did not respond to requests for comment.) This year, Victoria's Secret partnered with the Austrian brand for its annual fashion show, Disney commissioned it to create a crystal slipper for its Cinderella movie, and Madonna's Rebel Heart tour is currently on the road with 350 costumes fitted with 2.5 million Swarovski crystals.
Starbucks seems all but certain to continue the partnership next year, too, though it would not confirm as much. ("As you can imagine, our holiday gift assortment for next year is still under wraps," a spokesperson told Adweek.) But Dermody said the company would be crazy not to put more bling under the tree.
"Swarovski is a great example of a brand that aligns to the Starbucks customer base," she said. "Since it seems that the Swarovski partnership has been successful, it makes sense to continue it but try to keep it fresh with new items every year."
The little gems do come with drawbacks, however. "I can see a future state where some of the crystals fall off the cups and the gift card based on the usage of the product," said Toronto-based retail consultant Bruce Winder. "This will cause a brand backfire as both are dragged through the mud and look defective."
But the bigger liability, according to Winder, is the sort of excess that crystal-studded accessories represent in the first place. "The products look over-the-top and represent shades of the conspicuous consumption that took place pre-financial crisis days when more was more," he said. "There are still a lot of folks living paycheck to paycheck with record debt levels and lukewarm job prospects—including many Starbucks customers." The Swarovski accessories, he said, "rubs salt in the wounds of these groups."
Perhaps so. But for those who can indulge, there seem to be few regrets. "Totally awesome," wrote a Detroit-based customer about her crystal-studded gift card. "I like that it shows how much money I have."