After 11 days of playing trivia challenges and mini-games, entering a contest to win coffee for life, pledging to spread Christmas cheer, taking a virtual tour of a Costa Rican coffee farm, and regularly visiting my local coffee drive in real life, I got finally a Starbucks digital stamp on Monday afternoon.
With my first Starbucks Odyssey “journey” complete, and Holiday Cheer Edition 1 Stamp #4883 safely in my digital wallet, I looked with pride at the graphic icon of a Starbucks holiday cup nestled among the trees under two twinkling stars, with the sweet satisfaction of virtual achievements coursing through my veins.
Then I sold it.
The stamp went for $89 on the Nifty Gateway NFT marketplace, netting me about $79 after taxes — about enough to cover the gift card and coffee I’ve bought on another Starbucks Odyssey trip.
The next day, someone else sold a Holiday Cheer stamp for $150. Then another went for $200.
It was eye opening! If I can continue buying coffee for two more weeks, I will complete my next journey and receive the Starbucks Coffee Heritage stamp. I think I’ll keep it.*
The Starbucks Odyssey explained
At this point you’re probably wondering, what the heck is this guy talking about? This is all completely new to me as well. So let’s take a step back.
Starbucks Odyssey is an extension of the Starbucks Rewards loyalty program. It was announced in September and began rolling out on December 8 as a beta version to a small group of Starbucks Rewards members who have signed up on a waiting list. Starbucks says it will begin making Odyssey available to more people on the waitlist in January.
The initiative is a way for Starbucks to improve engagement with customers, in the long-term interest of the business. In the short term, as I learned, it will also cause some customers to spend more with Starbucks than they normally would.
For fans of Starbucks, it’s a way to feel more connected to one of their favorite brands, access special benefits, and potentially earn a little cash in the process.
Behind the scenes, this is the coffee giant’s move into Web3, including blockchain and NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. Don’t worry: you don’t need to know anything about the technology, or even the language, to participate.
Starbucks refers to the NFTs as stamps. Blockchain technology is what makes it possible to identify and track specific stamps so they can be sold and transferred to someone else in transactions visible on a public ledger.
The main focus of Starbucks Odyssey is a series of journeys, each involving a series of tasks of varying difficulty. There are two journeys so far in the beta. For example, completing the Holiday Cheer Journey requires:
- Correct answers to a series of Starbucks trivia questions (you can keep trying until you get them right).
- Matches Starbucks holiday cups with the year they were released (same goes for do-overs).
- Enter the Starbucks for Life Challenge for a chance to win free coffee for life.
- Taking a “Kindness Pledge” to spread holiday cheer in one of three specific ways: paying it forward; send a thank you; or give an unexpected compliment.
- Buy a Starbucks gift card (for any amount) to give to someone else.
With each completed task, you take an extra step on your journey, adding to your total score.
There are three points levels in the beta (1000 to 2999 points; 3000 to 5999 points; and 6000+ points) that will unlock future benefits. Starbucks has not yet disclosed the benefits, but says examples could include virtual classes, access to limited merchandise and invitations to exclusive events or top-level tours. (However, it is not yet clear whether people will receive free goods or just the privilege of paying for it.)
I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was able to keep the 125 Starbucks Odyssey points that I earned for completing the Holiday Cheer Journey even after selling the stamp.
A barista I chatted with at my local Starbucks compared Odyssey to “Pokémon GO for coffee.” It’s not a perfect comparison, but there are similarities in the way Odyssey blends and bridges the physical and virtual worlds.
This is particularly evident in the Coffee Heritage Journey. In addition to a Starbucks history trivia challenge, and a picture puzzle featuring the original Starbucks store, this trip includes what I consider to be the two most interesting aspects of Starbucks Odyssey trips so far:
- Complete an interactive video tour of Hacienda Alsacia, Starbucks coffee farm and global agronomic headquarters in Costa Rica.
This tour is really well done, with live images and drone footage, and short video clips where an engaging tour guide explains the ins and outs of growing, harvesting and roasting coffee. Completing this task requires answering a multiple choice question, the answer to which is revealed towards the end of the tour.
- Buy a Starbucks signature drink for five weeks straight.
This is known as a direct tie to the Starbucks business. I am an occasional Starbucks customer and it has made me a regular customer, at least temporarily.
The integration of retail technology is also impressive. Although the Starbucks Odyssey beta is a separate mobile web app, not integrated into the Starbucks Rewards app, my purchase has been logged correctly every time in Starbucks Odyssey as long as I use the Rewards app to make the purchase. (You use the same login for both apps.)
Only two weeks left!
NFTs as a marketing strategy
This is where the business potential of NFTs starts to become apparent.
Even as the buzz and hype around the technology has faded, Starbucks decided to take the time to develop a more strategic approach, as Brady Brewer, Starbucks’ chief marketing officer, told me in September.
“Since a lot of brands just jumped right in, we saw a long-term potential for this technology rather than a one-off,” Brewer said at the time. “We thought, how can that enhance not only our customer experience, but our core business, rather than something that would be on the side.”
Aside from missing the peak of the NFT craze, Starbucks faces the risk that launching what amounts to an elaborate marketing ploy could appear frivolous as workers at hundreds of Starbucks locations vote to join forces in their own quest for better working conditions.
The company hopes that employees (“partners,” in Starbucks terminology) will help build and participate in the Starbucks Odyssey community, and it prioritizes them on the beta waiting list.
While employees hosting online learning sessions, for example, will be on the clock, participation in the Odyssey community will be “more for fun and engagement,” Brewer said in the earlier interview.
What’s missing from the beta experience is a sense of community, including the ability to interact and engage with other members. Starbucks says it’s coming in the future.
For my part, I’d love to be able to talk to (and interview) “superman,” the Nifty Gateway user who purchased my Holiday Cheer stamp earlier this week. I haven’t been able to figure out how to do this.
In the meantime, the experience has given me a better feel for the appeal of NFTs. I wish I had held onto that Holiday Cheer stamp longer, and not just because the price has gone up.
Yes, I know, it was just an image, pixels on a screen. But in a larger sense, it was an icon of my journey over the past two weeks, everything I learned along the way, and the effort that went into earning it.
Look for me in line next week at the local Starbucks in my quest for the next one.
* Starbucks gave me access to the Odyssey beta based on my request to try it out in order to write this first-hand account. I plan to give away the proceeds from the sale of stamps as tips to Starbucks baristas, unless someone has a better idea of what to do with the money. Let me know: [email protected]