Last week Starbucks rolled out the Starbucks Metal Card. For the low, low price of $450 the card gets you $400 worth of coffee.
That’s not a typo. $450 gets you a card preloaded with $400 in store credit. Oh, and you also get a gold-level Starbucks card membership, a frequent buyer perk that gets you some freebies like drink refills and a birthday frappuccino, but that’s already free to regular customers.
Forgetting what they say about one born every minute, Starbucks announced a limited initial run of 5,000 cards and offered them for sale on the luxury goods website Gilt. The cards sold out in less than a minute and you can now find them on sites like eBay and Craigslist where they’re being resold for for more than $1,000.
Clearly this about more than just coffee. But what?
Starbucks gave up its aura of exclusivity the minute it opened its first shop outside of the Seattle city limits. You can’t be an insider to something that you can buy on every street corner, turnpike rest stop, and hospital cafeteria. And the now mass market coffee brand doesn’t speak of any particular connoisseurship. The true coffee snobs left the building long ago. But since the next guy in line won’t have the Metal Card in his wallet, merely possessing the card confers a conspicuous kind of status in and of itself. And the Starbucks Metal Card, which really is made of metal, is truly conspicuous. Watching someone pay for coffee with a slab of etched stainless steel is a little like seeing Fred Flintstone buying his brontosaurus burgers with a stone credit card issued by the Bank of Bedrock.
Starbucks understands that status signaling is a game of ever-higher stakes.
Look what happened with credit cards: the fading luster of the American Express Gold Card led to the AmEx Platinum, only to be topped by the company’s black titanium Centurion Card, distinguished less by the superiority of its member benefits than by its $5,000 initiation and $2,500 annual fee. Then there’s the I Am Rich mobile app: when iPhones first became widely available and lost their must-have status, a $999.99 application was sold through the App Store that was virtually featureless save for a large glowing red screen icon and the mantra “I am rich. I deserve it. I am good, healthy & successful.” Eight were sold before Apple removed it from the store.
While it’s intended to be seen, status is really in the eye of the beholder.
“This is a card for the 1%,” cultural anthropologist Robbie Blinkoff told USA Today. “It’s all about status, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I’d want to be seen with one of these.”