By Astrid van den Broek
Lured by free toys and other goodies, kids are raising the promotional stakes at the fast food chains
Call it the pester factor. Child sees fast food commercial hyping toy deal. Child begs parents for toy. Family goes to restaurant. Mom and dad buy meal deals. Kid gets toy.
“It’s something parents expect at McDonald’s, which is a little bit extra,” says Rem Langan, vice-president, national director of marketing at McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. in Toronto. “There’s an expectation on the part of the customer that they’re going to get something extra that a value-added promotion might bring, whether it’s hockey cards or whatever.”
For consumers, toys and other freebies provide that extra incentive to get them through a restaurant door, and for fast-food companies, giveaways are a
clean and simple idea. While they’ve been around for some time, the promotional game has evolved: the toys are of higher quality and restaurants are competing for more exclusive deals, more branded products and the opportunity to hook up with blockbuster movies. In other words, it’s go big
or go home.
Rem Langan, VP, national director of marketing at McDonald’s Restaurants in Toronto: value is the key to a successful toy promo
For Langan, exclusivity and uniqueness are the legs of a good promotion. Three years ago, McDonald’s made sure it nailed exclusivity down when it
wrangled Disney properties as a promotional partner away from rival Burger King Restaurants, locking up a 10-year relationship. McDonald’s other long-standing deals include one with the NHL, NHL Players Association and Olympics.
Langan cites two ingredients a promo must get right: “You need to ensure you’re offering something unique, of high quality and value. If you can add
to that a branded name, it really gives the consumer an opportunity to feel this is something they couldn’t buy anywhere else, and if they could, it would cost them more.”
Associating with brand names is the name of the game. Dairy Queen Canada of Burlington, Ont. has targeted customers five and under with DQ plush toys. It will offer the premium through this winter, but there’s a sense they’ve run their course. Chris Morales, VP marketing, says next year Dairy Queen
will introduce licensed properties because that’s where the action is.
“The really young kids are watching the TV programs. What gets their attention is the toy, so you key in on that,” Morales says. “For them, making a decision on a brand about food is not really important. You get the brand awareness based on the toy.”
That’s a premise foodservice consultant Doug Fisher of Toronto agrees with. “The toy is as important as the food for the kids,” says Fisher, who is the
author of Successful Restaurant Strategies. “It’s part of a co-branding theme.”
Swiss Chalet is the latest restaurant chain to enter the branded premium arena. Over the summer-usually a slow time for family-style restaurants-Swiss Chalet introduced its first family-targeted Woody
Woodpecker promotion, in which kids meals came with Woody sundaes and collectible Woody spoons.
“Woody was a major turn for Swiss because we paid the licensing fee for a high-profile product,” says Valerie McIlroy, VP marketing at Swiss Chalet’s
parent, Cara Operations in Mississauga, Ont. “My favourite promo is Woody because it was really out of the box for us.”
BK has it own Pokémon cards
Up in the stratosphere of fast-food promotions is the Hollywood blockbuster movie tie-in. But they don’t always work. In May, Tricon Restaurants Worldwide launched its largest promo ever, “Power of One,” linking its Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC chains with the Star Wars prequel, Episode One: The
Phantom Menace. Although the promotion launched last May, some KFC outlets were still displaying merchandise for it as late as mid-October.
Matt Kelly, former marketing manager at Tricon Restaurants Canada in Toronto and now VP marketing with Tricon Restaurants Europe, admits the promotion was disappointing. And while Tricon had the restaurant category exclusivity, merchandise from other categories flooded the market.
“There’s a lot of risk when you launch a promotion for the first time, because, let’s face it, with a lot of these licensed properties you don’t have the opportunity to test market the way you would a new product,” says
Kelly. “And movie properties are very tough because it’s hard to predict whether they’re going to be big. Who would have predicted that Titanic would have been huge? And everyone thought Star Wars was going to be bigger.”
Though video releases seem to be a second chance to unload leftover premiums, Kelly says that since restaurants tend to buy premiums at a loss
anyway, the last thing they want to do is unload them.
Fisher believes that while it was an interesting experiment, the Tricon/Star Wars attempt was one of the biggest failures in foodservice promos. “But I
think it was more of an execution strategy than not having the right product,” he explains. “They were trying to marry so many different concepts.”
Although it sounds obvious, the key to a successful kids’ promo is determining whether children and families are in a chain’s demographic. Chains that target adults first, and teens and children as a secondary audience, seem to have less success with toy promotions. Manchu Wok, a Chinese food chain based in Toronto, found that out last year when it held a contest for kids to name its dragon mascot.
“The promotion didn’t do well. Really, kids aren’t part of our primary target market and we’re also competing with the McDonald’s and Burger King’s
in the food court next to us,” says marketing manager Clare Jones.
Fast food operators have learned that if they’re going to offer kids’ premiums, the toys have to be white-hot. McDonald’s grabbed both Furbys and Beanie Babies, while Burger King nabbed Teletubbies. On Nov. 8, BK was to launch a Pokémon toy promo tying into Pokémon the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back.The promotion includes 57 Pokémon characters, one for each day of the promotion, along with Pokémon trading cards (Burger King-branded cards, not
the collectibles on the market today) in its own Poké balls.
That’s another key to a good promotion, says Fisher: repeat offers and lots of prizes: “More than one-off is important. That way you can build some of that traffic flow by the kids demanding they come in for the next toy of the series.”
BK began negotiating the deal a year ago when the Pokémon craze was ramping up. “Timing is critical,” says George Michel, president of Burger King
Restaurants of Canada in Toronto. “We rely on the experts in our organization, and even if it is a fad (instead of a trend), you’ve got to catch it at the right time.”
Ultimately, toy promotions are an integral part of the fast food business and will likely stay that way. Says McDonald’s Langan: “If you want to believe, as I do, that we’re in a customer-driven business, it’s important you stay connected, and deliver what they’re looking for. And that includes value.”