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Now WeChat Lets You Gift a Starbucks Coffee to Friends

Starbucks has a new promotion in China, where people can use mobile app WeChat to send their friends coffees or gift certificates. The feature, which arrives in time for Valentine’s Day, is called “Say it with Starbucks.” That’s a play on words, since the phrase in Chinese sounds similar to “say it with your heart.”

Starbucks has done similar social gifting promotions before with Twitter and Facebook. What makes this rendition different is that WeChat’s not just a social platform — it’s already a massive channel for mobile payments in China, and for gifting money.

At Chinese New Year, people in China use the WeChat mobile app to send virtual hongbao — red envelopes containing cash, often in small sums — to friends and family. Gifting hongbao is a local tradition, and Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings’ WeChat took them into the digital world in 2014 in one of the biggest marketing coups of the last few years in China. It used clever gamification to lure people into trying out the payment system — and crucially, to either send or collect hongbao from friends, people had to link up their bank accounts to the app.

The game helped transform WeChat into a widespread mobile payment platform and a rival to Alipay, which is affiliated with Alibaba Group. It continued this year, and Tencent says that a whopping 46 billion digital hongbao were sent over six days to mark the holiday. (The phenemenon is undeniably huge, though the numbers released by China’s internet giants sometimes strain credulity.)

An LGBT-themed gift card from Starbucks, on WeChat.
An LGBT-themed gift card from Starbucks, on WeChat. Credit: WeChat

Sending someone a Starbucks latte is a new twist on WeChat’s virtual gifting games. Tencent says Starbucks is the first retail brand to use a social gifting feature in this way through WeChat or Weixin, as it’s called in China. The all-purpose platform has 846 million global monthly active users, with most of them presumed to be inside China.

Starbucks is growing fast in China and aims to double its locations there in the next five years to reach 5,000 stores. But until recently, it lagged behind in China’s craze for mobile payments. It only began accepting WeChat pay in December, while chains like McDonald’s and KFC embraced Chinese mobile payments over a year earlier. It appears to be catching up fast.

Yuanchao Li, a 22-year-old undergrad at Peking University, posted to her WeChat circle that she had tried out the Starbucks feature. “I was attracted by the novelty of it,” she said. “It’s a creative way to send a gift to someone.”

Ad Age gifted a $4.50 grande latte to a colleague in Shanghai, who redeemed it by having a barrista scan a QR code that turned up on her mobile screen. The whole process was seamless; it took less than a minute to select a card, authorize mobile payment with a fingerprint and write a personalized message.

There’s a selection of virtual cards available, from mushy Valentine’s Day greetings to neutral thank-you or birthday cards. LGBT-themed marketing messages are still relatively uncommon in China, but Starbucks offers a few. One virtual card features the colors of the rainbow flag and a message that says, “have the courage to love.”

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