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Starbucks Scuttles Odyssey: One of the World's Most Visible Big Brand Blockchain Projects

Blockchain Journal Customer Journey Analyst Sophie Maxx Waldman joins BCJ editor-in-chief David Berlind at the NFT.NYC blockchain conference for a conversation about the buzz at the event and how the death of the NFT-based Starbucks Odyssey customer engagement and loyalty program impacted her as both a program user and a Starbucks customer.

Sophie has written about her experiences with the Odyssey program multiple times, and not only was she sad to see the program – one of the most visible of its kind in the world – come to an end, but Starbucks' termination of Odyssey raises questions about the viability of such NFT programs for other global brands. What went right? What went wrong? What does it mean for other global brands looking into NFTs to drive new or improved business outcomes? How might Starbucks take some of the learnings from the Odyssey program and incorporate them into its existing Rewards program (one of the largest and most visible customer loyalty programs in the world)?

As David and Sophie point out, Starbucks tried pretty much everything in the book to make the program work. It integrated augmented reality into several of the user "journeys." It relied on NFTs to provide exclusive token-gated experiences. It rewarded program members with NFTs for repeat purchases and sampling new coffees. It gamified certain elements of the program, including its Discord-based community center. But despite Odyssey's success at transforming traditional loyalty programs into immersive, social, and gamified experiences while at the same time fostering deeper customer connections with the brand, the program was still scuttled.

As Sophie and David discuss, one challenge faced by Starbucks and other brands entering the NFT space might have to do with the lack of a pre-existing collectible culture. They discuss how NFT initiatives from brands like Nike and Adidas were able to leverage collectibility as a key feature of the pre-blockchain sneakerhead culture (for which no Starbucks corollary existed). The lack of any mojo on the collectibility front wasn't the only issue with the Odyssey program. But it's one of several industry and brand-specific nuances that must be taken into consideration before launching an NFT strategy.

(The full-text transcript appears below.)



Customer Engagement

Food and Beverage

By David Berlind

Published:April 16, 2024

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15 min read

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Audio-Only Podcast



Full-text transcript of David Berlind's Interview with Sophie Maxx, Customer Journey Analyst at Blockchain Journal

David Berlind: Today is April 4th, 2024. I'm David Berlind, and this is the Blockchain Journal podcast. I'm coming to you from [the] NFT.NYC blockchain conference that's taking place on the West side of Manhattan, at the Jacob Javits Center. We're right along the Hudson River here and standing with me is a special guest. It's Sophie Maxx [Waldman], who is the Customer Journey Analyst here at Blockchain Journal. You can come to blockchainjournal.com and find all the articles that she's written about her experiences as a customer of various enterprises and big brands and giving her perspective so that other enterprises can understand how somebody who is technically what we call a degen. A very young, very mobile, living around, and that you can't pin her down in any one place. I think you've been - every time I talk to you in a different city. So, you live a very cool lifestyle. So, first of all, thanks for coming to the Blockchain Journal podcast.

Sophie Maxx: It's a pleasure to be here. One of my favorite media channels.

Berlind: Yeah. And by the way, for those of you who don't know, even though Sophie's been writing for us for a while, this is the actual first time that we've met IRL - in real life. So, it's just a pleasure to meet you in person, finally. But it's been great to have you writing for us.

So, you're here at the event. You're speaking here. You know you're quite a personality throughout the industry. A lot of people know about you. You have a big following on social media. And by the way, in terms of social media, at the end of this video, we'll put some QR codes up, so if you want to connect with Sophie and find her on social media, those QR codes will take you right there. So stay tuned for that at the end of this video. First, what's been the buzz here? You've been here at NFT.NYC. You're here at the main event. You're talking. You're staying up, 'till who knows what hours of the night going to all the after-hours events. I'm too old for that kind of stuff. So, what's the buzz?

Maxx: Yeah, I think the buzz is... It's the first year actually where I feel [like] it's less "Let's talk about NFTs" and now we can just kind of normalize them a bit, and more so just talk about what's cool in this space. What's happening? How are we using the blockchain in our everyday lives? And not so much focused just on the NFT aspect of it. But yet, that's now just playing a normalized part in the whole ecosystem.

Berlind: I shot a video earlier with Marc Baumann, who does the Dematerialzd.xyz blog. He's got a lot of insights about the use of use cases for NFTs in big brands, global enterprises, things like that, and he talked about how we're really kind of leaving the whole collectability thing - that was a big deal collecting NFTs. But that is no longer the case. We're seeing a lot more use cases for NFTs besides that. So yeah, it's. It's cool. I think we are kind of moving beyond that. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because, as the Customer Journey Analyst for Blockchain Journal, some of the videos we've shot [and]some of the articles you've written have been about the Starbucks Odyssey program. Now, are you a fan of Star Wars?

Maxx: Star Wars?

Berlind: Yeah.

Maxx: Star Wars? Or Starbucks?

Berlind: Star Wars.

Maxx: Star Wars, no.

Berlind: No. OK, that's OK. So, I grew up when Star Wars first came out. That was when I was a kid. And it was amazing. And I remember in the in the first movie where the Death Star, the evil empire's Death Star, they blow up a whole planet, and Obi-Wan Kenobi suddenly feels this disruption in the force, like that was... and it is a very memorable part of that movie. When I think about how Starbucks just completely sunset, had cancelled its NFT program. That's a big global... huge global brand. Starbucks is... and they went all in. I mean, they... Their NFT program was not just NFTs, it was augmented reality [and] has all kinds of token-gated experiences. They really gave it a good shot. And when they decide it's - all of a sudden - just shut it down, to me, that was like a disruption in the NFT -force. If Starbucks can't make it work, I don't know who can. So, you have written about it from the customer's perspective. How did that affect you?

Maxx: Yeah. No, it definitely was, one, upsetting just because when a program or experience that I like gets sunset, it definitely is just a let-down. But at the same time, I think it also maybe is like a bigger wakeup call that the space doesn't necessarily need in terms of sunsetting something that I thought was pretty successful. I had a great experience with it. You had a pretty positive experience with it. There were a little bit of hiccups, but I personally loved the whole time that they were just trying and implementing so many different things. Like you were saying, it really was a full experience, and, for me, it transformed their traditional rewards and loyalty, just collecting stars and getting a discount or getting a free cup at the end of the time. It turned it into a whole experience where I was learning about the brand. I was meeting people in the Discord [server] and gifting them free beans and things like that, where it really brought out that kind of like... For me, it wasn't just about. "Oh, let me just go be the customer, buy coffee, enjoy my coffee and move on with my day." It's it was a social experience. It was a gamified experience. There were a lot of all those components to it where I really felt connected to the brand and to what Starbucks was doing. So now that there's kind of a step back with that, it's like, "OK, well, now I'll just collect the stars again." And you know, it's funny, I actually was going to a Starbucks [a] couple [of] days ago, and I thought, "Oh, let me go check the Odyssey app to see if I can get something while I'm going or see if there's any new journeys going on and collect. Oh..." So it definitely gave me a little less excitement around going to Starbucks that day, but I still love the brand, and I think that maybe there's something bigger, or maybe there's a way that they actually can implement some of those pieces now into their existing rewards program and not have it be like the Web 3 program, and it's more so just like putting their whole rewards program that they already have on like on the blockchain, but as a very user friendly, almost like Web2-leaning experience without titling it like Odyssey and having its own... Oh, that's like the NFT thing; we don't touch that. Maybe they will bring that into their existing thing, which would be the best-case scenario, of course.

Berlind: That's a really great point, which is, maybe, it's not a total loss. Maybe they learned so much from running the Odyssey program that they'll take some of what they what they learned and incorporate it into the existing Starbucks rewards program. Just a reminder, when we talk about "stars" for those of you who are customers of Starbucks, you'll know that you get some number of stars every time you go, and then eventually, you can trade those stars in depending on how many you collect. They're like frequent-flyer miles and you can trade that in for more coffee or something like that. I thought it was interesting about the Starbucks program - not only did it make us more engaged with the brand, learn more about the brand - the coffee farms that they own and the sustainability and initiatives which you have become very familiar with — but also, one of the things they did... one of the things they tried with NFTs is: in order to get a certain NFT you actually to go into the store and buy some kind of coffee that you might not otherwise have bought, and therefore you're experiencing other offerings from Starbucks and maybe become a fan of that and start buying more of that.

Maxx: Yeah. No, it definitely led [to] me to trying so many different things, things that I didn't even want to try but did it because it was part of the experience, and enjoyed some of them, so it was very experimental where even having to buy a bag of beans. I have a[n] espresso at home and so I didn't have a real purpose for a bag of coffee beans. But once I had the coffee beans it kind of inspired me to be like, "OK, well, now that I have this bag, I can use this and enjoy it as opposed to just using my other machine." So that I really liked in it. And then also I would say the way that you had to go back and do things over and over again. For instance, the Sustainability Journey where you had to bring your own cup for, I think 3 visits in a row, maybe? I never even knew that you get a discount at Starbucks for bringing your own cup. And so, it was definitely a forceful thing, meaning you had to bring your own cup for this journey. But now, every time I'm going to a Starbucks and I happen to have a reasonable cup lying around, I go, "Oh, let me bring it. I'll get a little bit of a discount off." So [I] definitely give credit to Odyssey for helping me learn more about what the brand offers.

Berlind: Yeah, it's just sad to see the program go, and like you said, maybe they'll build some of their learnings into the existing rewards program, or who knows? Maybe it'll come back in some other form, like you said. Maybe they'll put it all on-chain. Maybe down the road, instead of giving beans to each other, I can actually gift you my stars. That's something you can't do, and that's something that's been talked about with a lot of different existing loyalty programs where you put the actual points or the rewards on-chain, and then that makes it possible for people to actually sell them or give them to other people. So, that that'll be interesting to see.

Now, one of my criticisms of the program over the last year, just observing that program and other programs, and something that I always thought was maybe a sign of trouble, was that Starbucks didn't come in with a head-start with anything collectible. For example, you're very engaged with the Artifact program and Nike, so you know all about them and the sneakerhead culture –collectability is a major issue, and yeah... I mean, you, I believe, are actually a collector of these things, and so when you have Nike or Adidas coming in, and they already have that pre-existing collectability mojo going...

Maxx: Yeah.

Berlind: It's a lot easier to kind of launch an NFT program on top of that where phygitally or digitally twinning NFTs to a particular pair of sneakers. Meanwhile, Starbucks... There was no equivalent of a sneakerhead. There was no mug heads. I was wondering whether maybe there was like a collectible mug of some sort. But, there are people who collect the Starbucks mugs. I've I found them. But it's a very, very small community. It's not like the sneakerhead culture by any stretch of the imagination. So, I don't know. Do you have any thoughts on that? Like maybe certain brands have to think about where they're coming from and what kind of head start they get.

Maxx: 100%, and I think it's really because we're seeing this greater shift with brands where they're... Well I guess more so like consumer behavior shift where it's going from consumption to participation. And so, it's less about just extracting from the customers to buy more and buy more and buy more and they're bringing brands or bringing their customers into the company as almost like a co-creator or a community, or we're seeing some of those buzzwords. But it's really because there's this shift toward participation. And I think that collecting, and I guess the culture of collecting, really pairs well when it comes to participating with the brand because it goes from buying things to collecting things, which seems more like an experience as opposed to an extraction of spend more money with, with our business. So, I think that is really what's driving this collectible aspect of it.

Berlind: And then... By the way, just to be sure, I'm saying collectible of the physical things, 'cause just NFT collection is by itself, which is what Starbucks was doing, was not enough.

Maxx: Yeah, exactly. And so then, when you could go from doing the journeys or doing the stamps to receiving something from the selection period, which is when the customers actually get to claim - I guess they're NFTs in their wallet - are all added up to a specific amount of associated points, and depending on where your points or your account's points fall, you get put into a tier, and within that tier, there's X amount of rewards for each tier to choose from every selection period. And so, with that, I would say those experiences there and the claimable physical items there were really cool.

I have people that still say to me today, "Where did you get that cup from?" Because I have the disco. It's like [an] all iridescent, studded tumbler from the Odyssey program, and they never sold that in stores. And people say to me all the time, "Where did you get that Starbucks cup?" And I said, "Oh, from the Odyssey program." [I] completely lost them. They had no idea that there was physical things that you could be receiving from a digital experience. And so, that's really cool. And I think also with like the whole collecting aspect of it, I mean you've received more of like the merchant apparel I think from it. But to the...

Berlind: I got the hoodie.

Maxx: Exactly. So for someone to see Starbucks Odyssey as a hoodie, it's like, "Oh, what is that?" And it kind of brings... Physical products bring up those talking points when you're out on the street with random people or, you know, strangers. So, what's Starbucks Odyssey? And then it gives you that like physical reason to now bring it out because you've had a physical product.

Berlind: You bring up a good point, which is I was wearing the Starbucks Odyssey hoodie and I walked into Starbucks. And they do have a coffee called Odyssey, but the people who worked at Starbucks, like in the store, the baristas and stuff like. They had no familiarity with the Odyssey program, and that, to me, was another kind of warning sign. This was not, even across the company; the people who are in the front line dealing with the customer were not 100% familiar with it. And I thought that was just another issue.

What I did find interesting - and I know you've written about this - is that once they started Odyssey, they really wrapped it into everything that the company did. So, for example, come fall time when they completely change the look of their stores, and they start promoting Pumpkin Spice Latte, Odyssey had a seat at that table for those cycles and whatever they did not only happened in the stores for all the regular customers, but it was also a change in experience for the Odyssey users.

Maxx: Yeah, that was one of my favorite parts about it, which is what prompted me to write that specific piece because they really did tap into the full marketing or like the calendar, the holiday calendar, I guess, with all of their traditional marketing, like you're saying when Pumpkin Spice comes about. All of that was brought into Odyssey, which is really cool. And then, they even went a couple [of] steps further to have those special... What was it called? Like [a] coffee chat, a fireside chat in the Discord [server] that was timed with all of those events as well. And I think that that really helped with that. Kind of like what I was just touching on with participation, because it gave them more of a reason to be like, "OK, it's the holiday time. This is how we're celebrating it. This is what we're doing," and it really tied it all together in a really cool way through Odyssey. And it also paired really well with what the physical stores were doing, too. So, I really liked that. They were going all angles with the kind of the themes of all of the journeys and then, now that it's kind of not there. I feel like they, like, "Well, who's going to do the pumpkin metaverse game like this year?" You know, I wonder if there's a way that they could have launched that for just all Starbucks enthusiasts to be able to go in there and do something like that, or maybe we'll see them put out an AR [augmented reality] filter that has nothing to do with the Odyssey program, but just has something to do with the brand now, and everybody... And they have a much larger pool of their audience of customers there because it's not so niche to Web3 or the Odyssey program.

Berlind: Right. Well, yeah, we'll wrap this up. I actually thought for a big brand to get into NFTs, even though they didn't have a head start with physical collectible stuff, they pretty much did everything right. They really did like...they tried everything. They tried augmented reality. They tried token gating, physical world experiences, they gave people physical merch like the siren coffee mugs, all of that. They just really went for it in a way that you'd expect any brand that decides are going to get into NFTs to do it. It just didn't work out. So, well, hopefully they'll take some of those learnings, or some other company will look at that and say... They'll come and read your stories on Blockchain Journal and they'll say, "OK, there are some things we need to check the box on and do that for our particular program."

Sophie, thanks so much for joining me here on the Blockchain Journal podcast. It's great to finally meet you in real life, and we'll definitely shoot some more video when we get back home, and we're shooting from our studio. So, thanks again.

Maxx: Thank you.

Berlind: Yeah. So, we've been speaking with Sophie Maxx. She's a Customer Journey analyst at Blockchain Journal. And you've been watching the Blockchain Journal podcast. Thanks for joining us here, and we'll see you in the next video.

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