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Starbucks China CEO Belinda Wong announces the company's new partnership with Tencent today. Photo via Starbucks.
Starbucks China CEO Belinda Wong announces the company’s new partnership with Tencent today. Photo via Starbucks.

Starbucks today announced new social gifting integrations with the popular WeChat app in China that could pave the way for future partnerships with apps like Facebook Messenger in the U.S.

The Seattle-based coffee giant will partner with Chinese tech giant Tencent to co-create a new social gifting feature on WeChat, the messaging app used by 846 million people per month. It will allow customers to give Starbucks products to friends using WeChat in China, which has become a key market for Starbucks. The feature builds off WeChat’s red envelope feature, which is based on a Chinese gifting tradition and lets people send money to family and friends digitally.

“This is an incredible moment in time for all of us at Starbucks and Tencent as we combine our strengths to create a true online-to-offline social gifting platform, reimagined at Starbucks,” Starbucks China CEO Belinda Wong said at the company’s investor event in New York City.

Starbucks inside the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. (GeekWire photo)
Starbucks inside the Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. (GeekWire photo)

Starbucks also announced that customers in China can also now use WeChat Pay, the app’s mobile payment system, to buy products at Starbucks.

So what does this mean for consumers in Starbucks’ home country?

facebook-developerThe closest U.S. comparison to WeChat is Facebook, and specifically Facebook Messenger. Both are messaging apps at the core, but also aim to be the remote control for our digital lives. I saw this in person on my China trip last year, where it seemed that everybody was using WeChat to not only communicate with friends and family but also purchase items, hail taxi rides, pay light bills, booking doctor appointments, and much more.

Facebook Messenger, meanwhile, continues to add more features within the app like payments and games that mimic what WeChat is already doing in China. The app reached 1 billion active users per month in July.

Today’s WeChat-Starbucks announcement may foreshadow similar partnerships for Starbucks with companies in the U.S. like Facebook, which could build gifting functionality into its Messenger app that makes it easy for people to give friends and family Starbucks items. It’s a win-win deal — more usage for Facebook on Messenger, and more revenue opportunities for Starbucks.

Wong, the Starbucks China CEO and a 17-year veteran of the company, said today that “we aspire to be the most-gifted brand on the digital platform in China.” To do the same in the U.S., it will likely need to partner with companies like Facebook, which owns both Messenger and WhatsApp.

Starbucks on Wednesday also unveiled a new feature in its mobile app called “My Starbucks Barista,” which uses artificial intelligence and chatbots for an “innovative conversational ordering system.”

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