When Promotions A.I. Goes Bad

Does the Starbucks promotions platform cross the line from benefit to bully?

By David Michael Kalman

Starbucks is the world’s largest coffee-house brand, and it has prospered by means of consistency of product quality, innovation in delivery, and faithfulness to its brand values. Unfortunately, there are occasions when innovation conflicts with a brand value and I believe this is occurring in the A.I. that generates Starbucks promotional offers, which are delivered through its mobile app and email channels.

Perhaps in a (premature) post-pandemic panic, the Starbucks A.I. has sent me increasingly insistent offers that I’m unlikely to accept, perhaps with the “intent” of contrasting these offers with more palatable ones, much like how retailers show you high prices before selling you the value product at higher margin. In addition to the nag factor — the effect of pestering me with many offers — the tone of the promotions has become somewhat ominous, with offers that an actual human wouldn’t contrive based on my purchase history.

In the most recent instance, I received an offer of a reward when I make a single purchase of $20 or more. The fact is, I don’t recall ever spending more than $20 in a single Starbucks purchase and I’m not likely to do so anytime soon. Most of my purchases run $5.00 or less. You can see the most recent offer here:

Starbucks promotion A.I. wants $20.

You can see that the offer itself is a tersely-worded admonition to spend a specific amount of cash, oddly devoid of any supporting brand message. Such a message could have suggested I enjoy a new flavor for summer, or relax in the sanitized and safe Starbucks store. But no. Just spend the $20 (and get some stars).

A day before that, I received a reward offer for purchasing four days in a row after 2 p.m., and when the offer expired I was greeted by a sad face:

Starbucks promotion bot cranked up to desperation-level to drive in-store business during an active pandemic.

The Starbucks A.I. certainly knows I’ve made only a handful of in-store purchases over the past 18 months, so what was it thinking? That’s right. It wasn’t thinking. It’s clearly a bot, cranked up to a relatively high level of desperation.

You may think I’m hyper-sensitive, if not a bit paranoid, but that’s part of my point: If I am hyper-sensitive and even a bit paranoid, the promotion bot should know that, i.e., how those attitudes play out in my purchase history and reflect my relationship with the brand. I would appreciate offers that convey the brand’s values and align with my most recent activity. I won’t appreciate offers that nag or attempt to bully me into behaviors that run against the grain. My conclusion is simply that brand managers need to check the aggression of their automated systems and be aware that a deficit of humanity can turn promotion bots into bullies that erode brand affinity. — DMK

David Michael Kalman is a management and communications consultant, and the founder of the BrandMagnet™ blog and Terrella Media, Inc. He was a co-founder of Intelligent Enterprise Magazine and Group Publisher of CMP Media’s Business Intelligence Group, and former Editor-in-Chief of Data Based Advisor and DBMS Magazine.