I love keeping track of all of the goings on of Indianapolis, and as I’ve written about before, I love free things. When I first heard about a Starbucks giveaway downtown, I was thrilled! The first 1000 people in line would receive a $20 gift card. The event description from local news outlets reported that other Starbucks Project Give Good events included celebrities like Gwen Stefani, Russell Wilson, and Ciara. Celebrities aside, the prospect of getting a Starbucks gift card made standing outside in December much more palatable. I headed downtown, hoping to be inspired by Starbucks’ generosity and marketing, but what I found was far from what I expected.

Indianapolis is not always a main destination, especially since Chicago is relatively close. When interesting things happen here, I get excited. When Google came to town, I waited in line for way too long for any other donut in the world, but the idea of winning something kept me there. My expectations for Starbucks coming and having a big event in the heart of Indianapolis were high. A company I admired in many respects was coming to spread a little love and holiday spirit in the Midwest.

Left in the Cold

This event was disappointing. Would I get a $20 gift card to the company that I visit more than my own mother? Yes. Was this event inspiring? Far from it. As far as I could tell, this was something that Starbucks had put on their calendars and then just forgotten about until the day before. There was no signage, no decoration, no organized lines, little to no crowd control. Around me, people were getting antsy, becoming increasingly frustrated by all of the people cutting in line. Only the first 1000 people would receive a gift card, and there was no telling what spot in line you were. What does 1000 people look like anyway? Could you be completely wasting your time in this line? Maybe.

Finally, when I reached the front of the line, someone adorned with a Starbucks apron was handing each person a small envelope and giving a fist bump. With the reward in hand, five other baristas smiled, said, “Happy holidays!”, and then it was all over. There was no celebrity awaiting me at the end to take a selfie with me. There was a generic gift card inside of the envelope, accompanied by a holiday message, and instructions to share some caffeinated joy with others. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I have always loved Starbucks’ brand. I hoped for a specially designed gift card; I hoped for a small cup of coffee to keep me warm during my wait; I hoped for an experience, not just a giveaway.

Your Brand Can’t Always Save You

At the end of the day, I talked to people who had sworn off Starbucks entirely because of this event. “It wasn’t well planned enough.” “It was so disorganized.” While they may have been Negative Nancies, there was something important in what they felt. They had an expectation for the event, and they felt betrayed. I know that personally, I felt as though I had been left out in the cold – literally and figuratively – by my former employer. For an event focused on spreading a little cheer to people in the Indianapolis community, there didn’t seem to be a focus on community.

No matter how strong your brand is, you can’t simply rest on your laurels. Even you will be affected by bad decisions or lack of planning. If you want to bring more than 1000 people anywhere, think about how those people will view your brand when the event is over. I know that I got a few free drinks because I waited in this line, but the thing that really stuck with me personally? There is always room for improvement.

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