When the first Starbucks gift cards debuted in stores in November 2001, they actually came with a tiny owner’s manual with instructions and a toll-free phone number. Although gift cards had been around since 1994 as an alternative to paper gift certificates, Starbucks was among the first major retailers to offer a reloadable card. It became one of the most popular holiday gifts of the season, selling nearly 200,000 in the first week alone. For just a few dollars, customers could give a meaningful gift to friends and colleagues, and the cards helped spread the word about Starbucks as its number of stores grew from 3,500 to the more than 32,000 around the world today.
Beyond convenience, there was something more: a joyful expression of the holiday conveyed by the cards themselves. More than 1,100 Starbucks gift card designs have been released over the nearly 20 years of the program, each one a canvas for the Starbucks in-house creative team. Designs range from vintage to modern, with illustration styles from the cartoon-like line art to bold vector graphics. They have been made with alternative materials like wood and recycled burlap coffee bags, adorned with Swarovski crystals, cut into festive shapes, and even dangled from a keychain.
“The Starbucks card is the most fun thing to work on,” said Meghan O’Brien, senior designer in the Starbucks Creative Studio. “It’s such an expressive part of our brand, and one with so much emotion baked into it. The card designs are something that makes your heart warm.”
When Brian met Louie
Motifs for the early Starbucks gift cards started out pretty traditionally, with just one or two designs each holiday season for the first several years. The company expanded its holiday collection starting in 2010, when it added the first Hanukkah and Kwanzaa cards. In 2014, Starbucks cards launched in China with its Lunar New Year series, and also expanded its card offerings to more than 100 holiday designs in U.S. and Canada stores. More cards meant more designs, which could range from the kitschy (pink flamingos in Santa hats?) to edgy limited-edition metal cards. Today, they are so popular, about one-in-seven Americans receive a Starbucks card as a gift each holiday.
The cards also began to tell tales of their own. In 2005, there was the first holiday tree, strapped atop an old-fashioned sedan. There was also dog in the backseat looking out the window with a smile, the first featured pooch in what would become a veritable menagerie of animals on cards. There’s also a gingerbread man named Jerry, a sweet annual addition to the Starbucks holiday card collection since 2015.
“The Starbucks card has become the perfect encapsulation of our brand, something that people hold dear to their hearts,” O’Brien said. “These cards have become such a meaningful way to tell stories and share those holiday moments with each other.”
Perhaps the most beloved character is a snowman that named Brian, who made his Starbucks card debut in 2010 with a cup of coffee nestled improbably in one stick-hand. He quickly became a customer favorite and has returned each year, often sporting a cozy scarf and a smile. In 2013 he was joined by his avian sidekick, dubbed Louie in honor of the St. Louis Cardinals. Their bromance has been featured with a card each year ever since.
“Our brand has so much joy in it,” O’Brien said. “That’s how Brian and Louie evolved – it starts with this cute snowy scene and then you add in a moment of friendship and sweetness. You can feel that magic between these two characters.”
Evolution of Gifting
The technology behind the Starbucks card has evolved even more than the cards themselves. The original cards, with a specific dollar amount loaded on to them, gained the benefits of a loyalty card when the Starbucks Rewards program launched in 2008. Now any Starbucks card could be used to enroll in the program, where members, earn Stars on purchases that can be redeemed for Rewards like free food, drinks, and more... In January 2011, there was another leap forward with the national launch of mobile payment through the Starbucks card Mobile app, turning any iPhone into a Starbucks card. By Valentine’s Day that same year, Starbucks rolled out eGift, allowing customers to send the gift of Starbucks by email. Today, Starbucks eGifts can now also be sent via text using an iPhone or through the Starbucks app.
“Now that we’re in our twentieth season of Starbucks card, the digital world has become a bigger part of customers’ lives,” said Rachel Heiss, who leads the out-of-store Starbucks card program. “We want to meet people where they are and where they want to be.”
How to give the gift of Starbucks
Starbucks cards are available in a variety of designs in both physical and digital formats and can be loaded with $5 to $500. They are available for purchase in Starbucks stores, online, on the Starbucks app and iPhone text message.
Starbucks gift cards: Physical Starbucks cards are available year-round in dozens of designs at Starbucks stores in more than 40 countries around the world, and bulk card orders can be made online. They are also available in more than 100,000 locations outside Starbucks stores, including grocery stores and other retailers.
Email and Starbucks app
A Starbucks eGift is an easy way to brighten someone’s day online on Starbucks.com and the Starbucks app. Choose any dollar value you want to give, add a personal message, enter an email address and hit send. You can select from a variety of eGift designs.
Apple iPhone users who have the Starbucks app users can text their thanks, congratulations or just let a friend know they care by sending a Starbucks eGift using iMessage. Scroll through iMessage’s app ribbon at the bottom of the screen and select the Starbucks logo for “Starbucks Gifts.”
Treat a coworker to coffee on Microsoft Teams. When Microsoft Teams is open, look for the apps button in the Teams navigation bar. Select the Starbucks app and download. Next, login (or set up) your Starbucks Rewards account, open a chat or channel to select the team member you’d like to send an eGift to, select the card design, recipient, gift amount, then personalize your message and send through Microsoft Teams by adding to a chat or channel. Choose any amount between $5-$100.