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Chains campaign for big returns with election-theme promotions

Chains campaign for big returns with election-theme promotions

Chains looking to bolster their usual marketing efforts have tapped into the fervor of the political-primary season with election-theme promotions in bids to win larger blocs of consumers for their products and brands.

Yet underneath some of those advertising efforts lies a seemingly sincere desire to persuade citizens to vote.

Just a day after political activists clamored for new primaries in Michigan and Florida, Stuart, Fla.-based Hurricane Grill and Wings rushed through a promotion to support the push for “do-over” balloting in its home state. Locations there offered a free Crispy Wing appetizer to anyone who brought in a valid Florida voter registration card.

“We wanted to react quickly,” said Brandi McDonald, marketing manager for the 30-unit chain, referring to the festering controversy over Democratic Party rules prohibiting the awarding of delegates based on the unsanctioned early primary in Florida. Twenty-three Hurricane Grill units are in that state.

“We’re supporting coming out and voting and having our voices heard,” she said of the do-over movement for a new primary that would count.

The chain’s do-over-related promotion also coincided with Hurricane Grill and Wings’ newly launched rebranding initiative, which showcases a revamped menu, new interior and exterior store designs, and a new logo.

Hurricane Grill and Wings took a lighthearted approach without intending to poke fun at the electoral process, declaring that anyone could receive a free appetizer despite their political leanings.

“Right-wing, left-wing, all wings are welcome here,” McDonald said.

But the one-day promotion failed to mobilize voters to dine at Hurricane Grill units. Overall redemption rates were low, leaving officials of the chain thinking that “perhaps Florida voters are disenchanted with the system and feel their voice doesn’t count,” said Lori Cuonze, Hurricane Grill’s vice president of marketing and communications.

The chain now is prepared to run a sweepstakes for Florida voters to win a trip to Washington, D.C., to learn about the nation’s democratic process, she added.

Restaurants have conducted election-theme promotions in the past, but this could be one of the best years ever for channeling the voting enthusiasm of citizens into purchasing enthusiasm. Voter turnout has broken records in many states.

Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny’s, which has more than 1,500 units, acknowledged the “heightened interest in the national-election landscape” when it announced its “America Votes for Real” promotion earlier this month.

The promo extends the chain’s “Don’t Fall for Fake” integrated campaign, which seeks to woo customers away from “fake” breakfasts at quick-service chains to “real” breakfasts at Denny’s.

The centerpiece of the campaign is , where visitors can select questions to ask during a debate between two breakfast candidates: Denny’s and “Fake O’Fakerton,” represented by an empty takeout container atop a lectern.

When asked such questions as, “What’s your stance on ingredients,” or, “How will you serve your fellow Americans,” candidate Denny’s extols the virtues of a Denny’s breakfast. Fake O’Fakerton answers all questions in unintelligible blather.

The campaign includes guerrilla efforts to place Vote4Real signs near real campaign signs in major cities, as well as in-store posters and employee buttons that read “Cast your vote for real.”

On July 4, Denny’s will kick off a sweepstakes offering a trip for two to next year’s presidential inaugural parade.

Dallas-based Pizza Hut also piggybacked on election fever to promote its new Pizza Mia value meal. Just before the Iowa caucuses in early January, the chain broke a TV spot featuring clips from Democratic and Republican debates.

The spot spliced together the candidates’ sound bites about the economy. A voice-over then said, “Confused? Fortunately there’s a choice that’s easy to make.” Pizza Hut promoted Pizza Mia as “an economic solution for families feeling the financial pinch today.”

Yet Pizza Hut, which has about 6,200 U.S. units, also used the commercial to urge citizens to vote in 2008. The tag, “It’s your choice. Please vote,” appeared at the end of the spot. Pizza Hut claimed it was the first company this election year to remind people to vote.

The chain aired a second spot targeting young people with a get-out- and-vote message. The 30-second commercial showed two college students talking about the presidential candidates, and one student convinces the other that it’s important to vote.

Whether such serious messages can influence young people to vote is doubtful, said Len Kornblau, a New Jersey-based marketing consultant and educator.

“I think it’s a nice public-service gesture, but most conscientious college-age people and those just out of college are registered to vote,” he said. “I don’t think they connect a particular chain to ‘get out to vote.’”

The 38-unit California Tortilla chain, based in Rockville, Md., encouraged citizens in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., to vote in the Feb. 12 primaries there and awarded a free taco to customers who wore “I Voted” stickers.

Even if election-theme promotions can’t influence voter turnout, Kornblau said, they can grab the attention of consumers because “people are thinking elections now, so there’s a logical tie there.”

Airing well-executed election-theme TV spots, whether humorous or product-focused, also can keep a brand in the public eye by cutting through the clutter of all the political ads by candidates that bombard viewers, he said. Election-theme promotions have no long-term value, but they can boost sales and raise brand awareness in the short term, Kornblau said.

The original Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, Calif., and its recently opened locations in Santa Monica and Old Town Pasadena generated a huge amount of press coverage with a “Super Tuesday Countdown Beer Vote” campaign, co-owner David Houston said.

The restaurants adorned their beer spigots with laminated faces of the top candidates in both parties, including Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain. Patrons voted for their candidates by ordering the beer their faces represented.

“It was a big sweep by Obama,” Houston said, who added that the promotion generated “a little more business” for the restaurants.

This was the second time Barney’s Beanery conducted a beer vote. In the November 2004 general election, beer drinkers in the Santa Monica restaurant elected John Kerry over George W. Bush by a 2-1 margin.

The promotion does serve as a reminder that people should vote in elections, Houston said, but there’s an even more important reason behind it.

“Any excuse we can have to drink beer is a good promotion,” he said.

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