Since the first coupon was printed (actually handwritten) in 1887 by Asa Candler, a founder of The Coca-Cola company, the soda maker, its competitors, and the entire food industry has been developing marketing gimmicks to get consumers into their restaurants to try new products.
Much has changed since 1887. Some couponing has gone extreme in search of the hottest deals—but the art of the gimmick has transformed into enticing customers with offers of free shipping, virtual punch cards, and in some cases, exceptionally intriguing products aka “stunt foods” (hot dog stuffed or bacon wrapped pizza crust, fried chicken buns, and Mac & Cheetos). This evolution has followed the same basic rules of communications—meeting the audience where they are—and giving consumers what they want.
As consumer choices become more and more abundant, their purchasing decisions are often based on more of the experience than the actual product/meal they purchase. Add in “for a limited time only” and we practically make an appointment to experience the “new” product. I’ll admit waiting in line for my free Slurpee on July 11th—especially after my kids had been talking about 7-11’s “birthday” since Independence Day. Further, the Starbucks Pumpkin Spiced Latte and the Sam Adam’s Octoberfest Lager will be the bookends to many autumn days.
We all want to be part of the popular trend. We all want to think we are getting a good deal, too. If that means visiting a restaurant or ordering from a food truck, GrubHub, or via UberEats— it is the experience that matters.
Focusing on the gimmick however, doesn’t mean abandoning the pre-existing brand. The company that practically invent the gimmick actually fell victim to its most common traps. Coke learned the hard way back in 1985 when it changed its recipe—only to be pressured to bring back Coke Classic (with all the associated nostalgia from marketing campaigns of the past) months later.
The gimmick should be designed to draw people in, discover something new, all while introducing what you hope will become, or reaffirm what is already, a classic brand. There are literally dozens of choices for Oreo flavors these days, but you can still find the classic cookie on the shelves too.
The gimmick is merely a tactic in an overall communications strategy to engage a customer. As with any communication, we must focus on the strategic objective of it. What do we want our audience to think, feel or believe? If we get lost in the tactics of marketing and lose focus of the message and the experience that actually matters to the audience, the entire brand will suffer—regardless as to how good (or bad) the product or idea actually may be.
The Cold Stone Creamery may lose a few dollars on all those free samples—but they more than make up for it in the sales of those products over time.
The most successful companies will embrace those gimmicks that encourage participation in the “experience”of consuming a product or meal. As explained in USA Today, marketers are wise to have customers act as brand ambassadors—posting photos, tweeting, showing off that they are part of the popular trend (or perhaps bragging they have spotted the elusive McRib.) Those companies that are most engaging with their customers, and meet them where they are, will be the ones that win every time because you simply can’t sell a Happy Meal to a customer dressed like a cow at Chick-fil-a.