5 restaurant publicity stunts aimed at holding late-summer traffic

Are they likely to succeed in snagging attention and sales? Decide for yourself.
Photograph: Shutterstock

As days shorten and traffic ebbs back to pre-summer levels, restaurant operations of all stripes are resorting to the age-old ploy of the publicity stunt in hopes of tempering the seasonal slide in transactions. Here are five that caught our attention, either for their brilliance or ill-conception. We’ll let you decide which is which.

Another name change, this time for Pumpkin’—er, Dunkin’

We’d never be so crass as to suggest the restaurant industry is chockablock with marketing copycats. But, man, does it abound in coincidences. Consider the tactic of temporarily changing a chain’s name to trumpet a new menu item. IHOP all but yelled “Ca-ching!” after racking up invaluable free publicity with its temporary switch to IHOb for a burger-line rollout (the “b” stands for “burger”—get it?). Never mind that signage was actually changed at only one store, and that Pizza Hut had used the same gimmick years before (it temporarily switched a unit’s ID to Pasta Hut when the brand rolled out family-sized servings of pasta for takeout and delivery). The IHOb program was one of the most successful publicity ploys in recent memory, as many chains noted.

Presumably one of those was Dunkin’, the experienced name changer formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts. This week, to generate some hoopla about the brand’s early entry into the soon-to-be-packed pumpkin spice coffee market, the doughnut specialist announced that it would change the name of eight stores to Pumpkin’ for an indeterminate time. Why eight, you ask? The units are located in towns with names whose first letters spell out “pumpkin” (Providence, R.I.; Upperco, Md.; Marietta, Ga.; etc.)

Watch for more gimmicky attention grabs as we move deeper into pumpkin spice latte season, or what was once known as the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

Aiming for a swipe from customers

No, not that type of swipe. The aim of the Kings Dining & Entertainment facility just outside of Boston is to play off the popularity of instant matchup apps such as Tinder and Bumble. For the sake of the uninitiated: The programs enable someone with a smartphone to leaf through profiles of prospective lovers or friends. The profile reviewer swipes left if the person profiled and pictured holds no interest, or swipes right if a connection wouldn’t be discouraged. 

Event Sales Manager Kristina Pagliccia borrowed the idea this summer to introduce a singles night at the Kings facility. She invented a profile for the game-and-food concept’s mascot, the presumably single Woody, and posted it on Tinder. The effort snagged offers of dates for Woody—and enough feedback and attention from potential customers to generate interest in trying the same approach next month on Bumble BFF, a service that helps the digitally lonely find a friend. 

Wendy’s fans ‘earn’ the return of a craved product

Wendy’s all but taunted fans of a product dropped from the chain’s menu two years ago to force the item’s reinstatement. If customers really wanted Spicy Chicken Nuggets to be brought back, the chain said in its usual snarky Twitter voice, then 2 million of them would need to “like” the tweet issuing that challenge. 

It was a slam-dunk, as Wendy’s no doubt knew, with the 2 million likes collected in two days. But the chain appeared to act on the fly when it moved up the promised reentry date by a week. The fiery chicken nuggets are back on the menu for a limited time, and Wendy’s is seizing the occasion to step up its engagement via social media.

Never mind a BOGO. How about a house?

Once upon a time, Jimmy John’s was that rare chain offering delivery of foods other than pizza and Chinese fare. Then came the onslaught of third-party services, and suddenly the distinction didn’t seem so unique. Now it’s trying to fend off the challenge in feisty style. First, the sandwich specialist announced that it would refuse to make deliveries beyond a five-minute radius of the source store, a jiu-jitsu move intended to show that third parties didn’t share its commitment to quality.  

This week, to add some volume to the promise, Jimmy John’s announced that it would ensure one superfan lives within the five-minute delivery zone by giving him or her $250,000 toward the purchase or construction of a house there. The winner must be someone who currently isn’t eligible for delivery because of where they live, and the selection would be based on a written submission of why they deserve a home in the zone. 

Customers who currently live within a delivery zone can enter an alternative sweepstakes in which five entrants will be awarded free sandwiches and free delivery for a year.  

Olive Garden’s new lifetime come-on

It’s the “Citizen Kane” and “Sgt. Pepper” of restaurant publicity stunts, a deal that’s instantly generated millions in revenue while delivering the sort of attention that’s seldom drawn by anyone not named Kardashian, Jonas or Trump. Olive Garden’s Never Ending Pasta Pass has set a high bar for publicity grabs. And now it’s trying to outdo itself by giving the 2019 version of the offer a new twist.

This year, as usual, customers can vie to pay $100 for a pass entitling them to unlimited servings of pasta, breadsticks and salad during the fall (this year, the deal runs for nine weeks, from Sept. 23 through Nov. 24). But anyone who manages to bag one of the regular passes can also put themselves in contention for an even sweeter deal. Fifty of them will be extended an offer to pay an additional $400 for a pass that doesn’t expire until they do. It’s good for their lifetimes.

The deal will be offered starting this Thursday afternoon

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