Marketing promotions are designed to attract business and enhance a company's brand. Occasionally, though, they can have the opposite effect.
And like any customer issue, a well-handled recovery can help mitigate the effects of a failed promotion, while a poor response can leave a bad taste in customers' mouths.
In August, Patsy's Pizza in New York rolled its menu back to 1933 prices to celebrate the restaurant's 75th anniversary. The promotion meant that a 12-ounce steak could be had for 90 cents, while a slice of pizza went for 60 cents.
The stunt drew a lot of attention, of course. So much so that police were called in to corral the crowds.
In May, Ohio residents threatened to boycott Papa John's after a Washington, D.C., franchisee distributed T-shirts at a Cleveland Cavaliers/Washington Wizards basketball playoff game that read "Crybaby" and carried the number 23. The shirts were a reference to Cavaliers player LeBron James, who had complained in a previous matchup about hard fouls.
And dozens of restaurant chains originally offered free or discounted food on Election Day to customers who came in sporting an "I Voted" sticker. It quickly became clear, however, that the promotions could have run afoul of election laws and might have resulted in felony charges for violators.
Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel issued a warning to business operators, quoting that state's law on election incentives in a statement, "Businesses are free to offer 'Election Day' specials or sales for all of its customers, but gifts, incentives or specials just for voters are prohibited under this provision."
Picking up the pieces
How an operator deals with the fallout from a bad campaign can determine how customers think about the brand, marketing experts say.
"The answers are simple," said Scott R. Gingold, CEO of Easton, Pa.-based business consulting firm Powerfeedback. "Be honest with your customers. Don't hide, be front and center throughout the crisis as well as the recovery."
For the restaurants running Election Day promotions, the fix was easy. Operators simply abandoned the "I Voted" sticker requirement and opened up their promotion to all customers.
Things didn't go as smoothly in Patsy's case. The restaurant owners shut the promotion down at 7 p.m., even though a press release issued before the event said they would serve until 10 p.m. The police informed the waiting patrons about the shutdown.
The incident led to a spate of negative publicity. Several Internet discussion boards posted pictures of police blocking the doors of the restaurant.
"People were understandably upset, since we were led to believe that if we were on the line by the cutoff, we would be served," a customer posted on Eater.com, a Web site devoted to news and information about New York restaurants. "It was pretty cowardly of management to send the police to tell us it was over, and I feel Patsy's management handled this very badly."
While that incident was eventually forgotten, other operators haven't been as lucky.
"If they continue to get substantive negative feedback, the restaurant must address the problem and find a way to demonstrate goodwill," said Margaret Wilesmith, president of Wilesmith Advertising & Design in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It's as easy as placing a single full page ad to the effect of 'we make a great pizza, but we do a lousy promotion' or 'we make a great pizza but we couldn't deliver.'"
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For Papa John's, the LeBron James T-shirt incident continued to pick up steam in the Cleveland area. The pizza chain served up an apology by holding a one-day promotion, offering large 1-topping pizzas for 23 cents in honor of James' jersey number.
Papa John's sold an estimated 75,000 pizzas during the promotion, which was widely covered in the media. In addition, the company donated $27,500 to the LeBron James Family Foundation and $10,000 to the Cavaliers Youth Fund. In the end, all was forgiven.
The company's response was in line with what Wilesmith says is an appropriate way to recover from a promotion gone wrong.
"They need to make fun of themselves a bit, say they goofed and include a special, limited-time offer," Wilesmith said. "Whatever has enough value to win back customers, as long as it is manageable, has sufficient breadth to effectively reverse the fallout and has no chance of backfiring. In other words, make darn sure they don't screw up a second time."