Strategic Freebies

Yes, we are still in a deal-driven environment, but more and more, the deals I see are increasingly strategic. Think about Denny’s free Grand Slam or Chick-fil-A’s March Mania Friday where customers save their receipts and get their exact order for free before the end of March. These are what I call “strategic freebies”…very different offers with very different underlying strategies.

I was with some fellow Ohio State alumni the other day and the topic turned to Buckeye nostalgia. They were undergrads when I was in grad school there in the ’80s, but we separately had fond memories of a funky little joint off the main drag called BW3.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, the OSU BW3 location was the very first BW3. When I discovered Buffalo wings, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The same was true of my friend’s husband, Vince. Although Vince is sort of a picky eater, because of BW3, he fell in love with Buffalo wings. He loves wings, he makes his own wings, and, in particular, he loves BW3 to this day.

His story proves the power of freebies.

♦ His fraternity house (TKE) was next door to BW3, and one of his fraternity brothers, who happened to be from Buffalo, met the manager and scored free food for a big TKE party.

♦ As the saying goes, the rest was history.

♦ All of his fraternity brothers became passionate regulars….perhaps even Buffalo wing fanatics. Nobody had ever tasted anything like it.

♦ That free food was compelling enough to win over even a picky eater like Vince.

♦ Vince even claims that the TKE house kept BW3 in business for the first few months. Having been in the funky, off-the-beaten-path location when it was nearly empty except for me and my friends, I suspect he is not exaggerating by much.

♦ Moreover, that free food created “raving fans” and fierce loyalty that remains even today.

Entrepreneurs have always intuitively understood the power of free food. Part of its power comes from the economic reality that the value to the consumer far exceeds the cost to the restaurateur…up to five times the cost.

The secret to a powerful free food strategy is how you do it.

♦ When the free item is signature to your brand, people can’t get it anywhere else so it builds loyalty.

♦ An item that has a high craveability quotient drives its own traffic (especially when consumers can’t get it anywhere else.)

♦ When it targets light or lapsed users like Denny’s Slam, it can help rejuvenate the customer base as well as reward the regulars.

♦ When it targets the right new market-like starving students with a product that goes great with beer-it can generate trial for new products or new brands.

♦ When it is well executed, it motivates repeat visits and potential “raving” word of mouth and cyberchat.

When I was with the Bravo/Brio Restaurant Group, we sometimes gave guests free flatbread pizza while we were on an especially long wait. Not to minimize the impact on food cost when you do this–it’s important to look at it from a ROI standpoint too. My question would always be, “How many raving fans can you produce with that pizza?” And the answer almost always gives you a positive ROI.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts