34000 free cups of Starbucks coffee

On Friday Starbucks had its first Chinese Coffee Break, a two-hour event in which you could get a free tall cup of coffee. I had a lunch appointment at 12 and decided to drop by Starbucks a few minutes before noon to check how busy it was. I actually did not expect to see many people, but while walking to the Grand Gateway shopping center I knew I would be wrong: I met at least 20 people with a paper cup from Starbucks (normall I never see anybody with a Starbucks cup on my walk from the office to Grand Gateway). Upon arrival at the coffee shop there was a line of at more than 50 people waiting for their free cuppa! This was a few minutes before 12, just before the official Coffee Break would be over. I did not wait to see what would happen at 12, likely they would still serve all the people (it’s a US chain, not a Chinese one), and I certainly did not stand in line to wait for a free coffee. I did get a coffee there about an hour later, when I was just about the only customer.

It made me think, why would somebody wait in line for at least 20 minutes to get a cup of coffee for free? Of course I know the answer, most were people who had never been to Starbucks before and wanted to try the expensive coffee. Or office workers who could afford it occasionally, and now jumped to get it for free. For most Chinese time is still less valuable than money. It’s the same as on the internet: Americans have money but no time, Chinese have time but no money. Therefore I think that online ads (especially video ads and in-game advertising) are going to be huge in China: people are willing to watch them in order to see a video or watch a game for free. Don’t try to charge them for it, because nobody will pay you.

The Shanghai Daily also wrote an article about the Coffee Break, and they reported that a total of 34,000 free cups of coffee had been handed out. In Beijing the total figure was only half of this, sort of proving that Shanghainese are more thrifty than Beijingnese. All over Greater China (incl. HK and Taiwan) Starbucks handed out 186,000 free coffees. The newspaper also interviewed some of the customers waiting in line. One of them, a female headhunter working in Plaza 66, was calling her colleagues to tell them about the free coffee. For another one, a 50-year old female retired worker (they still retire early here), this was her first Starbucks coffee in her life, as the coffee would be too expensive for her to buy.

This marketing action was certainly worth its money. The total cost for 186,000 coffees is likely less than USD 100,000. For that price you have over 150,000 people coming to your store, wait there for quite some time (so they can get used to the Starbucks atmosphere) and have a good time talking to their friends (nobody comes alone in China). Likely they talk about it with their friends at home and in the office, and because it was for free probably in a positive way. Combine that with lots of free press attention and a good coverage in the blogosphere, and I think the USD 100K was well worth it. A smart move, congratulations to the Starbucks marketeer who came up with the idea.

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  1. Hi Marc, seemingly you are using’s service with your own domain name, how did u do that in China, since the Great Fire W*ll blocked the customize domain service of Many thanks if you can share the info.

  2. Drinking coffee is still a new thing for chinese life style; and chinese themselves don’t have the habit of spending money on “enjoyment” but more into durable things like big electronics, cars, houses or education etc. And for new things, chinese are always suspicious and probably don’t spend a penny on trying unless it is free. (the conservativeness is very much like europeans and even more like Dutch).

    so it is not very much the issue that how much money they have (actually look into a normal middle level chinese home, they have most newest electronics and they go on vacation at least once in a year), but the choice of a life style.

    I think when mexican food first got into Holland, emotionally it was quite rejected by many dutch as well because it is not what is in their life routine; and right now Korean food have a uprising trend in America, but in Holland there is hardly any visitor. However, a friend of mine finally got enough guts to try one Korean res in Rotterdam after a lot of persuasions from me. The result was quite possitive, he felt relieved. Com’on, it is just “try and see”! however, not every nation like America, who dares trying and dispose easily as well when they don’t like it. But should we expect so? No…

    The older Chinese generations are famous for the thrifty, and they will continue with their life style, but the fact that young generations are rebellions should not be ommitted. The key is the right markeing method.

    There is the new concept of China Marketing, which is called “grassroot” approach; this doesn’t mean you couldn’t expect a higher margin over your product, but just means start from a small appetite, allows it more time to grow and then the profits could be returned as favors in the long run.

    This is how Chinese think and live, should we change it or adapt to it? We need to understand it first I think…

  3. @jerry: I don’t think this service is blocked in China, I did not use any tricks to set it up. Also I do not need to use a proxy server to post. Just change the settings to your site in

    @anonymous: I think Starbucks is doing quite well in China, even in second tier cities. Main reason in my opinion is not because Chinese like the coffee so much, but more because of the environment and because it gives you status to be there (it means you can afford it, so you must have money). This is the choice of lifestyle you are talking about. Paying a lot of money for a coffee, and hoping that people will see you drinking it (or inviting your friends over for a coffee, to ensure they see you and talk about it).

  4. Yes, you certainly need money to drink coffee, like everywhere. The rush for Starbucks fashion does not only happen in China but also in London; there was one article on Time Magazine, called

  5. 4-5 dollars for one cup of coffee in China just sounds wrong to me. It reminded me the days when Mcdonalds were considered to be a posh place to have meals. I remember my class mates from shool days actually went there to celebrate their birthdays, but now if you tell people you are going to Mcdonalds for your birthday, they are just going to look at you and think you are weird.