Last Updated on July 30, 2021
With the advent of the Internet and a customer base who cannot remember a time before Google, foodservice operators are learning that they need effective restaurant promotions that can hold their own in an industry that is becoming more competitive by the day.
Nowadays, to succeed in the restaurant industry, it is imperative that restaurant marketing engages directly with guests. Consumers vote with their dollars — and good branding can help them feel as if they’re investing in something, rather than just buying a product.
Here we compiled nearly 30 restaurant promotion ideas that reached out to guests in unique and successful ways (and share some statistics associated with the campaign results) — and also dig into some restaurant promotion fails that ended up costing chains more than they ever would’ve expected.
1. McDonald’s Promotions: The BTS Exclusive Meal (the Philippines and South Korea)
McDonald’s Philippines launched an exclusive BTS Meal, named after the South Korean pop boy band “BTS” (with 40 million fans globally). The band chose limited edition sauces with cajun and sweet chili to be included with 10 chicken McNuggets.
In the Philippines, the meal was sold for $5.15. The Philippine fans were even saving the packaging wrappers (unique BTS color, purple), and some framed and laminated the logos.
This is an especially effective promotion from an operational point of view, as it was effectively repurposing existing items and did not add any complexity to the menu.
- The promotion resulted in a 1,000% increase in daily nuggets sales compared to average days
- The BTS meal was the first time the fast-food chain sold over 1 million units of a set consisting solely of side menu items
- McDonald’s Philippines sold close to 3.5 million chicken nuggets during the promotion’s first day
- In South Korea, the meal sold 1.2 million sets
2. Starbucks Promotions: Loyalty Rewards Program
Starbucks rewards its customers with star balances or points on its mobile app that can be exchanged for free espresso shots, pastries, and merchandise. The coffee chain also gives incentives with hot happy hour deals. So many customers store money on the Starbucks app that the chain has digital currency stored that outpaces some major world banks.
- Between 55%-70% of Starbucks’ sales go through the loyalty program
- More than 19.3 million members
- Members represented 47% of April to June 2020 sales
- American members have redeemed 175+ million free rewards
3. Rolled-up Rims Ramps Up Tim Horton’s Sales
In 1986, Tim Horton’s was a relatively unknown brand looking to reach new guests and increase sales. In conjunction with their cup manufacturer, Tim Horton’s launched their “Roll Up the Rim” campaign where guests can win prizes ranging from donuts to cars by finding a message hidden under the rim of their coffee cup.
- Quarterly revenue increased 4.8%
- TSX-listed shares rose 4%
4. St. Pete Brasserie Has Prayers Answered through Facebook
St. Pete Brasserie in Florida was on the verge of closure. Desperate for revenue, they turned to Facebook and posted a restaurant promotion in the form of a plea to their fans asking for help in a time of crisis.
- 40% increase in sales
- Company was still in business as of 3 years later
5. A Tastemaker Calls, Morton’s Delivers
Peter Shankman’s tongue-in-cheek tweet to Morton’s Steakhouse was met with an unexpected reply: dinner waiting for him as he arrived at the airport. For the price of a steak dinner, Morton’s garnered tons of publicity for this smart social media restaurant promotion.
- Positive review broadcast to Shankman’s 100,000+ Twitter and blog followers
- Nationwide coverage in the U.S.
6. Butter Lane Bakery: Baking Up Buzz with Class
While many bakeries took to Groupon to sell their goods (we are not often fans of discount-driven promotions), Butter Lane Bakery offered customers an experience to share a baking class with family and friends in a professional kitchen as a restaurant promotion.
- 9,000 seats sold, 3,000% of their goal
- Profits allowed Butter Lane to expand their storefront and hire instructors
7. Ted’s Montana Grill Sweepstakes Sweeps Up Fans
Building on the announcement that Ted’s Montana Grill was voted the #1 burger in America by DigitalCity.com readers, Ted’s set up a social media contest. Customers submitted their photos and videos to enter for a chance to win a Toyota Prius, all-expense-paid trip to Montana, or a year’s worth of Ted’s burgers.
- 3,000 entries in the first week with 1,500 opting into email
- 6,622 total entries
- 40% increase in Facebook fans
- 394 entrants opted into text message notifications
8. Restaurant Promotions Leveraging Foursquare
Looking to increase revenue, Angelo & Maxie’s teamed up with Foursquare to drive traffic. They offered a free dessert with every check-in and purchase of an entrée.
- 400 check-ins
- 60% of check-ins were new customers
- Revenues increased 18%
9. Burger King’s Creative Restaurant Promotion: Detouring McDonald’s Customers
Burger King developed an app that unlocks when users reach 600 feet radius of a McDonald’s restaurant. The app users would get an automatic coupon for a 1-cent Whopper the moment they enter the radius.
- The Whopper Detour resulted in 1.5 million app downloads
- Generated 3.3 billion impressions, equating to $37M in earned media
- 500,000 Whoppers redeemed (higher than 40 times Burger King’s past digital-coupon-redemption record)
10. Einstein Bros. Bagels Increases ‘Like’-ability With Facebook Offer
Einstein Bros. Bagels saw their Facebook fan list stagnate. To reach new fans they tried a restaurant promotion that offered a certificate for a free bagel and shmear to anyone who “liked” their page on Facebook. “Be my friend, get a free bagel!” was the message Einstein Bros. Bagels promoted, and the giveaway increased its Facebook fan count from a measly 4,700 to a massive 336,000-plus in the three days following its launch.
- 1000% increase in fans in the first week
- Gained 296,000 fans in one month
- Became the 54th most popular business on Facebook
- Hundreds of thousands of new fans cashing in for their $2.50 bagel–or $840,000 worth of would-be sales
- Einstein Bros. worked with Facebook to develop the campaign, having innovations like staggered coupon expiration dates to control traffic to the restaurants
11. Burger King’s ‘Subservient Chicken’ Serves Up Buzz
To promote Burger King’s new TenderCrisp Chicken Sandwich, Burger King launched the “Subservient Chicken” website where customers could interact with a chicken trapped in an apartment.
- More than 385 million hits (more reach than an ad in the Super Bowl)
- Visitors spent an average of six minutes on the page
- Sales increased an average of 9% a week
12. Chipotle Restaurant Promotions
Customers are becoming more aware of what they eat, so Chipotle developed a restaurant promotion that distinguished the quality of their products over their competition. They created a two-minute short film called “Back to the Start”, featuring a song by Willie Nelson, which highlights the problems with industrial farms and Chipotle’s dedication to local, healthful ingredients. The film aired in the 2012 Grammy’s with a huge reception.
- 10,000 tweets
- #1 Country song on iTunes
- 6 million + views on YouTube
13. Jollibee Promotions: Touching Commercials
Jollibee is known for its heartfelt touching commercials. The short films “Vow”, “Crush” and “Date” had millions of views only a few hours after upload and boosted sales, especially for signature items.
- The company’s private studios have produced more than 30 short films/commercials resulting in 350M views and nearly 700M in reach
- In 2017, the signature YUM burger quadrupled in sales after the release of the “Crush” video
14. Friend or Foe: Burger King Demands Facebook Sacrifices
To channel the energy of social media into their restaurants, Burger King created an app that challenged fans to delete 10 people from their “Friends List” in exchange for a free Whopper. The campaign not only drove customers into restaurants, but also provided metrics such as coupon redemption, up-sell and take-rate, and ROI.
- 200,000 friends sacrificed in one week
- 35 million free media impressions
15. Wendy’s ‘Poutitions’ for Dominance
A surge in poutine popularity among Canadians inspired Wendy’s mock petition campaign. “Make Poutine Our National Dish” read t-shirts, buttons, and lawn signs. A YouTube video and television commercials encouraged viewers to sign the “Poutition”.
- Generated 17 million media impressions
- 279% increase in Facebook fans
- Share of voice in social conversation jumped to 63%
16. Subway’s Promotions: $5 Footlong Subs
The now-famous “5 … 5 … 5 dollar footlong” was only supposed to last for a month — but Subway’s promotion ended up going on for several years. The first phase launched in 2013 and it’s resurfaced at least twice since. (While an effective promotion, this pricing strategy has gotten the chain into some trouble from a cost-management side of things.)
- Subway’s $5 footlongs surpassed $3.8B in sales
- Sales increased by 25% within the first two weeks that the promotion was live
17. ‘Finger Cooking’: Boston Pizza Answers Lazy Chefs’ Prayers
Boston Pizza International wanted to increase their take-out and delivery business without cannibalizing in-store sales. Thus, “Finger Cooking” was launched. A father shows the viewer how to “cook” by ordering pizza.
- Sales Increased in the first year by 21%
- Sales growth continued into the second year by 19%
17. Applebee’s Increases Lunch Sales with ‘Smart’ Strategy
To promote the restaurant’s quick lunchtime service, Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill launched a multi-channel campaign. Customers are guaranteed their lunch within 14 minutes or the meal is free. To fill that time, select Applebee’s restaurants have provided QR Codes at each table for customers to scan as they wait, directing them to either the Applebee’s Facebook page or YouTube content created by the chain.
- 9.8% increase in lunch sales
- 5,900 new Facebook fans
- 55,000 QR scans
18. Dunkin’ Promotions: Online Influencers
In its first move collaborating with an online influencer, Dunkin’ Donuts teamed up with TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and launched a particular drink, “The Charli”, named after the influencer. There was also a dance challenge that went along with it which not surprisingly became an equally huge hit.
- The menu innovation sold hundreds of thousands of drinks in the first 5 days of its debut 57% increase in daily app downloads
- The company saw a 20% sales boost for all cold brew coffee sales the day of the launch and a 45% surge in cold brew sales the next day
19. Fans Go Loco for Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos
To celebrate their 50th anniversary, Taco Bell wanted to celebrate with a new, bold product. With the successful introduction of the Gordita and Chalupa in the past, they looked to innovate where no one else had: the taco shell. Partnering with Frito-Lay, they created a fully seasoned chip-like taco shell and fans couldn’t be happier.
- Over 500 million Doritos Locos Tacos sold in just 14 months
- 15,000 new employees hired to handle new sales
- Nationwide media coverage
20. ‘Oh, Yes We Did’: Domino’s Overhauls Its Brand
With sales stagnating and stores closing due to customer dissatisfaction, Domino’s needed to turn their brand around. They re-invented their menu with new recipes and retrained every pizza maker then got the word out to customers through commercials and a rented billboard in Times Square where customer reviews were presented – good or bad. This was the beginning of a series of unique restaurant promotion ideas the brand leveraged in the next decade.
- Record-breaking 14.3% increase in same-store sales
- Revenue increase of 14.5%
- Quarterly Profit up 55.7%
21. Redefining Mobile Marketing: Jack in the Box Takes to the Streets
With the popularity of food trucks on the rise, Jack in the Box wanted to think outside their brick-and-mortar business model. A 34’ truck dubbed “Jack’s Munchie Mobile” was created with all the kitchen equipment available at their restaurants. The mobilized restaurant has attended over 100 events in Southern California. This can be an answer for many independents asking “how to promote my restaurant”.
- 6,000 fans on the Jack’s Munchie Mobile dedicated Facebook page with 130,000 active users and 2.2 millions views
- Over 20 million visual impressions through road travel and event attendance
- Free national media coverage
22. See More Sales: Papa Murphy’s Uses SMS to Reach Customers
In order to reach their customers in unique and effective ways, Papa Murphy’s partnered with Phizzle to start a text-message based restaurant promotion. Three or four times a month, an SMS blast is sent out to participating customers with a coupon for free items.
- 18% coupon redemption rate
- 100,000+ opted-in users
22. Red Lobster Restaurant Promotion Fail: All-You-Can-Eat Was Too Much
This promotion arguably cost Red Lobster’s president Edna Morris her position for letting hungry customers eat too much of its all-you-can-eat crab dinners. She tried to boost profits with a $22.99 dinner promotion — but instead lost millions by bungling her calculations on how many times patrons would refill their plates with expensive crab and the fixings. High commodity costs that overlapped with the company’s promotion further hurt the company’s bottom line.
- The company lost an average of $1.1 million per month over a short span that year
- In one quarter, the company took a $3.3 million in profit loss
- Wall Street analysts downgraded the stock
- A panicked selloff led to $400 million in value being lost
23. Push for Pizza: Red Tomato Pizza creates One-Touch Pizza Ordering
Looking for a way to win out against their large chain competitors, Red Tomato Pizza of Dubai developed the VIP Fridge Magnet. Customers simply set their pizza preferences on the company website, connect the magnet via Bluetooth to a smartphone, and with a single push of the button, pizza is on its way.
- 500% increase in deliveries within 4 weeks
- Attracted 97,133 new customers
- 9,400 international news stories, worth $8 million in free media
24. Hot Dog! Nathan’s Fans Eat It Up This Restaurant Promotion
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest began as a small publicity stunt. Their goal was to get a photo of the restaurant in a local paper. Over the past 40 years, the annual contest has become an international spectacle, with the restaurant spending their entire advertising budget on the event rather than television commercials and other traditional advertising media. Events like this one can result cost-effective for promoting a restaurant especially to students and a young audience.
- 40,000 spectators at the event
- 1.949 million viewers via ESPN simulcast
- 93% increase in sales over the past seven years
25. Play With Your Food: Domino’s Launches Pizza Video Game
Domino’s leads the market when it comes to mobile ordering for good reason: they are constantly redefining customer engagement — this time with Pizza Hero, an iPad game that lets customers virtually build their own pizza and then order it. Customers can also apply for work through this game.
- 328,610 downloads
- 3rd most downloaded app in the App Store
- 7,089,325 pizzas “created”
- 756 players became employees
26. Culinary Crowdsourcing: McDonald’s Menu hits the Masses
To celebrate their 40th anniversary, McDonald’s asked their German customers to design a celebratory burger. A web application was created where users could build a completely customized burger, post their creation to a gallery, and vote on their favorites. Thus, the Pretzelnator was born, but not without plenty of competition.
- 116,000 entries
- 7 million page impressions
- 1.5 million votes
- Reached 25% of the entire German population through social media/news media buzz
27. VIP Treatment: Domino’s Rewards Loyal Customers
The first of its kind to team up with Foursquare, Domino’s led the geo-targeting race of restaurateurs by offering a free pizza to the “Mayor” in Liverpool each week. The success of this campaign caused Domino’s to roll this restaurant promotion out to the rest of Britain.
- Reached 200,000 Foursquare users in Britain
- 2,764 Facebook posts and 3,714 tweets about the campaign.
- 9,617 check-ins with 3,000 unique visitors
28. Hell Pizza: Friendship’s Trial by Fire
The Ghost Pepper Challenge was just gaining speed on YouTube when Hell Pizza of New Zealand turned it into a game for their customers. Upon request, the hottest peppers known to man were placed on a single slice of a pizza pie. Friends and family would sit down together to eat, but one unlucky diner would end up with a mouth full of fire.
- $2.3 million in extra sales
- 17.5% increase in new customers
- ROI of 400%
Restaurant Promotions Work Best When Built From the Bottom Up
However, ramping up sales is better done (more sustainable in the long term and without a deterioration in margins) with a marketing and promotional strategy built from the bottom up and inside out; from store-level merchandising to modernized neighborhood marketing, to national and multi-national product and brand launches, fostering differentiation and innovation to retrofit the restaurant competitive advantage.
- 17 Pizza Marketing Campaigns
- The Challenges Facing the Increasingly Crowded Pizza Segment
- 10 Trends Reshaping the Restaurant Industry
- Are We Relevant?: Questions to Ask During a Restaurant Brand Audit
ABOUT AARON ALLEN & ASSOCIATES:
Aaron Allen & Associates is a leading global restaurant industry consultancy specializing in growth strategy, marketing, branding, and commercial due diligence for emerging restaurant chains and prestigious private equity firms. We have helped restaurant companies around the world drive revenues, increase profits, and enhance the guest experience through improved marketing, messaging, and menu engineering. Collectively, our clients post more than $200 billion, span all 6 inhabited continents and 100+ countries, with locations totaling tens of thousands.