California Tortilla is proud of its wacky marketing campaigns—most of which happen on a pretty small budget. To launch their popular Fish Taco two years ago, the chain's founder came dressed up as a scuba diver and had buckets of water dumped on him—all recorded for posterity in a goofy YouTube video.
When it came time to promote the Teriyaki Burrito LTO this summer, the marketing department stirred up some viral "pre-excitement" six weeks before it was to hit the stores. "We put out a call on Twitter and Facebook for fans to send in fortune cookie messages that related to California Tortilla," explains Stacy Kane, director of marketing for the 40-unit Rockville, Maryland chain. "These were baked into fortune cookies that were handed out with every order of the Teriyaki Burrito." It created a lot of buzz—and buzz is the measure of an LTO's success, she adds. "The other great thing about social media is you get immediate feedback."
Admittedly, California Tortilla is known for its edginess. But even more traditional concepts can no longer ignore online social networks. "The marketing landscape has changed drastically in the last year," contends Nicole Abraham, director of marketing and brand management for Pat & Oscar's, a 19-location family-dining concept based in San Diego. "We used to have a four-prong marketing strategy for LTOs: In-restaurant POPs [point of purchase materials], consumer PR, external advertising and local store marketing. In the last six months, we added social media."
Standing apart from the LTO clutter is the biggest challenge, marketing experts agree. Everyone is introducing more seasonal or limited-time menu items more often to reel in today's increasingly tight-fisted customers. Technomic reports that in the first quarter of 2009, the Top 250 chains introduced 699 LTOs; that number soared to 991 in the second quarter. When you have a limited marketing budget, "you have to find creative ways to send out the message about your LTO," says Pat & Oscar's Abraham. "The viral spread of a message is the new word of mouth."
Concepts as diverse as Bob Evans, Arby's, Papa John's and Hardee's are increasingly—and successfully—using Facebook, Twitter and mobile technology to offer LTO "exclusives" such as coupons and discounts, according to Rita Negrete, senior editor with Technomic Information Services in Chicago. "This is the way Millennials like to communicate, both with each other and the businesses that serve them," she notes. "Baby Boomers may still be in the habit of clipping coupons, but Millennials find them too much hassle and don't read newspapers anyway. Television marketing is not dead, but it's just part of the mix. In the world of ‘new media,' e-mail marketing is losing its effectiveness, but mobile marketing (alerts, promotions and coupons via cell phone) is picking up speed."
While the younger generation may be the most "socially active," plenty of older Americans are right in there with them. Pat & Oscar's recently introduced its Bangkok Chicken Chopped Salad on Facebook, asking participants to guess the ingredients from the posted photo. "We embraced Facebook for its core audience—30- to 49-year-old females—which is the same as ours," says Abraham, who was a bit surprised at Facebook's demographics. "This LTO showcases a new flavor profile for us, so our goal was to attract lapsed or new customers and encourage trial." Supporting marketing materials included an LTO panel on the menu board, POPs in each location and e-mail blasts to Pat & Oscar's E-Club.
So far, the response to the Bangkok Chicken Chopped Salad has been very positive, Abraham reports. Negrete adds that consumers who receive marketing messages from a "trusted source"—like a Facebook or Twitter friend—are more likely to respond favorably than if they received the message from a faceless corporation.
Togo's, a West Coast sandwich chain out of San Jose, California, also dipped into social media for the first time with its summertime Roast Beef Bacon & Cheddar Sandwich. On a limited budget, VP of marketing Renae Scott found Facebook and Twitter's low investment especially appealing. "We posted a description of the sandwich on our new Facebook page and in a few weeks, built a base of 1,500 fans," says Scott. "Many of these fans, in turn, went over to Twitter to talk up the sandwich, starting a dialogue that drummed up enthusiasm. "Togo's is something of a cult brand in California, so these are effective mediums for us."
To further boost traffic and trial, Togo's ran a three-week radio campaign to advertise the LTO during late-morning drive time—right when potential patrons are making lunch decisions. "Instead of the traditional 30-second spot, we created a less expensive 10-second traffic sponsorship," says Scott. By partnering up with the California Beef Council to share marketing costs, Togo's was able to keep within budget and assure product consistency and supply. Colorful menu-board photos, window posters and counter cards supported the LTO in each location.
Moe's Southwest Grill also teamed up with a commodity board to promote its Phil E. Burrito. "One of the ingredients in this LTO is mushrooms, so we approached the Mushroom Council to assist us with marketing. They said ‘If you can think of something a little different to do, we'll help facilitate it [with a financial contribution],'" explains Sarah Rigsby, director of marketing for the Atlanta-based Moe's. The result was a successful mobile text messaging coupon program.
Using the Moe's Club database, the team started collecting cell phone numbers; 2,000 people signed up initially with the number reaching 15,000 during the promotion. The offer: receive $2 off the LTO by accepting a cell phone coupon. An in-store piece promoted the coupon offer through a special code.
"Texting coupons is a relatively new technology, so we were pleased that we had 15,000 participants on our first try," says Rigsby. "We're now looking into more targeted promotions that can be built into our loyalty program." More traditional media, such as postcards, FSIs (freestanding inserts), radio and TV were used in selected markets as well. "Each market also has its own local budget to promote LTOs through their choice of media outlets," Rigsby adds.