SURF THIS: Custom cards: A gift that has you written all over it

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I was in Texas a couple of weeks ago addressing a marketing conference organized by Strategic Fulfillment Group. The room was full of smart, progressive marketing minds, all sharing ideas about how to best address their respective customers. The focus of my presentation was building better online shopping environments, so we were all pretty well entrenched in the concepts, methods, and trends of selling online. Yet even this esteemed company didn’t come up with the innovative idea that Starbucks would put into place the very next day.

On the way back home, I was checking email in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport when I received a message from Starbucks inviting me to personalize my Starbucks Card. I found the offer intriguing for a couple of reasons.

Of all the retailers either you or I are familiar with, Starbucks stands alone in its ability to make a commodity seem like so much more. This is a chain with 13,000 stores (and plans for 25,000) built almost entirely on cups of coffee-something still offered for free in my local Ace Hardware Store. Starbucks fans are legion and fiercely loyal, though often inexplicably so. (I should know, I happen to be one of them, and I’d have a hard time telling you why.)

Not surprisingly, their success at uncommoditizing a commodity goes beyond coffee. Almost all retailers have a gift card of some sort, but Starbucks has been uniquely successful in building a unique product out of theirs. The methods have been relatively simple (and are now being copied by other retail giants like Target): they frequently change the design of the cards to reflect the personalities of the giver and receiver. Changing the design allows people to change cards with their moods, and helps to make the card itself feel like as much a part of the gift as the money that’s stored on it. So the next step in making the Starbucks gift card as much of a “must have” item as the coffee? Personalization.

The personalization industry is already huge, and gift cards continue to grow in importance, especially during the holiday season. The National Retail Federation, a retail trade group, predicts sales of gift cards will rise 6 percent this holiday season, to $26.3 billion, outpacing the overall industrywide forecast of 4 percent holiday season retail growth. (Other sales forecasts are much higher.)

In response, Starbucks created the card customizer (, an easy-to-use online tool that allows you to create your own customized card either for yourself or to send as a gift. The Flashbased card builder mechanism is a simple, step-by-step process that works pretty well, though I did experience a few fits and starts at various points in the process-and at one time had to quit my browser and start over. It seemed like a small irritant in an otherwise positive experience.

Customizing a card starts with four design foundations. On top of each, you have multiple options available for colors, images, and wording… One of the most popular, called “My Story,” allows you to choose the scene, place a person (male or female) into the scene, change their appearance (hairstyle, color, clothing), add accessories (car keys, MP3 player, coffee cup, etc.), and then add a personal message. It’s easy to see how many different iterations could be created, and this is for just one of the designs. There’s a $4 fee for the customization and shipping, and the cards are available in multiple denominations (and can be reloaded either online or in the store.) With standard shipping, they arrive in a few days.

Of course, there are some people out there (aren’t there always?) who feel that gift cards are some sort of evil, devilish spawn that merely demonstrates how crass and un-thoughtful the gift-giver is. Perhaps they’ll change their tune when they receive a custom-created, personalized Starbucks card with an image that looks a little like them, has their name on it with a little message advising them to lighten up a little… I’ll let you know.

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at

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