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Dropping the Ball

By Dec 01, 1999

Beyond a few timely exceptions, the millennium isn’t generating a whole lot of promotional madness after all.

It’s turning out to be the Yawning of a New Age. One of those “what if they gave a party and no one came” kind of deals. The changing of millennia was supposed to create a thousandfold more opportunities for marketers, to be a star event on which brands could take a promotional ride into the next century. Hey, look no further for that prediction than the pages of promo back in January.

Lo, these months later, behold all the excitement… please remain beholding, someone will be with you shortly. Maybe in another thousand years!

The marketing story for the last year of the 20th century might be the non-story that the millennium is turning out to be, and the surprisingly few size-appropriate promotions surrounding it. But is it such a surprise? Was it never anything more than numerical hype that simply failed to add up? Or will some marketers eventually kick themselves in hindsight for missing what might have been a boat of Titanic proportions.

Now, before New York senatorial candidate-in-waiting Rudolph Giuliani orders this magazine’s funding withheld because Herr Mayor doesn’t like what he’s seeing inside, it must be acknowledged that there are indeed several really sensational millennium promotions out there, chief among them Gotham’s own Times Square 2000. When the confetti hits the fan at midnight on the 31st of this month, Panasonic, Korbel, Discover Card, Waterford Crystal and others tied into the grandest New Year’s Eve celebration of them all will be glad they were there.

Likewise, M&M/Mars’s clever double-M association was sweet (though it’s odd the company blew its wad in 1998), and Warner Bros’ Mil-Looney-Um take-off with Bugs Bunny and the gang hit the mark. Noteworthy, too, is the way Disney’s marketeers have integrated the company’s various entertainment resources to present a multifaceted promotion.

B-b-b-b-ut that’s about all, folks, when it comes to going hog-wild on the event itself. The millennium did not turn out to be like the Super Bowl or the Olympics, attracting marketers with one colossal, tangible, occasional moment to wrap their promotional arms around. While the end of the decade/century/millennium has been promoted with debate-stirring best-of lists and poignant reflections – which is nothing terribly new, by the way – this one and only chance to back the future has passed with little fanfare. Even temptations to prey on public fears aroused by the threatened Y2K computer collapse have been tempered.

“We’re chasing the wrong thing here,” says Einson Freeman ceo Jeff McElnea of efforts to latch onto the millennium. “It’s a turn of the calendar, but there’s nothing of substance. The Olympics has substance. On the local level, the opening of a new venue has bricks and mortar. It’s so hard to be distinctive. Retrospectives have been done, and looks into the future have been done, by magazines and TV and other media. It’s like turning 40, and someone else has done the photo albums and the future analysis, and you have nothing else to do.”

Not that Einson Freeman clients didn’t try. “They came to us either asking, `Should we be doing something?’ or telling us, `We think we should,’ and in both cases we were not able to defend a recommendation,” McElnea states. “In all cases, we had to back-sell an idea with some other type of promotion activity. For example, if a home furnishings client said he wanted to build a millennium house and give it away in a sweepstakes, when it came down to our being able to justify the payout, compared to other non-millennium alternatives, we’d recommend going the non-millennium route, because the consumer interests didn’t seem to be compelling. Pokemon and Rugrats are a lot more interesting.”

Popular TV cartoon shows are interesting to marketers because tying into ongoing programs can help build sustainable relationships with consumers. They’re not just one-time events, as the millennium is.

That same strategy, however, is what makes Times Square 2000 viable. There’s already a well-established tradition, with the location, the countdown and the dropping ball, and watching it all unfold on TV has become an international New Year’s Eve institution. So the challenge for Countdown Entertainment, the co-producers of the annual event (along with the Times Square Business Improvement District), was to find compatible sponsors whose brands could benefit from the connection.

THE SQUARE’S THE THING

Korbel is taking full advantage of the millennium and Times Square 2000, investing heavily to promote its champagne as the one to pop open for this singular occasion, and hopefully others. The decision to sign a 10-year sponsorship with Countdown Entertainment was a wise one, says Korbel president Gary Heck. “The association with Times Square gives us national credibility,” he asserts. “Times Square is the icon of the event, which gives our company the legitimacy to call Korbel the official Champagne of the millennium.”

To spread the word to consumers, Korbel worked all year long with retailers, setting up millennium-themed displays including a countdown clock. This also offered Korbel a one-time chance to promote Champagne as a year-round purchase, so the same displays were used for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and other events, often with a cross-promotional partner such as Fuji Film or 1-800-Flowers.

The bottom line for Heck right now is the increase in case orders of Korbel, from 1.24 million cases at the end of 1998 to 1.52 million by the first week in November – which is significantly higher than the 200,000-case jump anticipated. That bodes well for Heck’s goal of getting people to try Champagne for the first time, thereby hoisting the entire category. “My only disappointment,” he adds, “is that other companies didn’t jump on the bandwagon.”

Maybe those other companies feel the same about the millennium as U.S. Marketing & Promotions director of client services Michael Napoliello. “It’s going to be a fun night,” he says about December 31, 1999, “but I’d rather watch it on TV.” USM&P’s clients, intrigued by the event, ultimately shared his opinion. “Overall, they’re looking more for regular promotion fare. They’re waiting for the smoke to clear. The costs and effort at this level are not really worth it.”

The best examples of not having to tie directly into the event but still taking advantage of the moment are seen in the various Mil-Looney-Um promotions launching in the fourth quarter of this year. Much as M&M’s merely played off its name, the Warner Bros. Consumer Products division of Time Warner has playfully parlayed its recognizable Looney Tunes characters into a timely campaign of its own and invited others to join the fun. Of course, Bugs, Daffy Duck, Tasmanian Devil, Tweety Bird, et. al have already starred in other promotions, and the millennium is an ideal way to extend their presence.

While Warner Bros. is celebrating the Mil-Looney-Um with animated programming on its WB Network and the Cartoon Network, events at its retail stores, and special features on its home video products, several marketers are tagging along. Subway Restaurants will include Looney Tunes “collector clips” premiums with its Kids Pak meals, an effort supported by national TV advertising and in-store displays at more than 10,000 locations. Boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese will showcase Looney Tunes characters, as well as ideas for kids to create their own time capsules. Other Mil-Looney-Um partners include J.M. Smucker, MCI, Mott’s, and Act II Popcorn.

Cruise ship lines, hotels, and resorts have felt the public’s malaise after efforts to jack up prices for millennium packages resulted in lackluster reservations, and often prompted deep discounts.

BE LIKE MICKEY

They could all learn a lesson from Disney, which is using the millennium as a jumping-off point for promotions covering several of the entertainment giant’s bases. For instance, the Millennium Dreamers Awards campaign, in which McDonald’s is a partner, incorporates a global search for children aged 8 to 15 who have had positive impacts on their communities, and culminates in a three-day event at Walt Disney World for 2,000 children in May. Epcot Center will open a special Millennium Village, and a Magic Sweepstakes will award prizes drawn from Disney’s cruise line, publishing house, and other divisions. Meanwhile, the attention accumulated from the promotions is driving steady traffic to the theme parks.

Whereas some companies have declined to take the millennium bait because they can’t find a hook for their brands, an interesting phenomenon has taken place with marketers that have a direct line to the Y2K scare. Most are laying low, afraid of being criticized for exploiting consumers’ concerns. Del Monte and Crown Point, producers of canned fruits and vegetables and ready-to-eat meals, respectively, have declined to run stockpiling promotions, even as sales of their products have risen in anticipation of food shortages in early January. Retailers have been cautious about promoting certain Y2K-related items such as dried goods and batteries, feeling that they could be left with huge inventories.

Others haven’t avoided the temptation. Eveready, for example, has teamed with the American Red Cross to promote setting aside essentials such as batteries, and Nestle’s Perrier and Poland Spring divisions have stepped up production of bottled water. Staples is encouraging consumers to back up important financial and personal computer files, a service its copy centers just so happen to provide.

There are sure to be last-minute promotions as the New Year approaches, especially from local retailers, and a slew of “limited-edition” products is certain to come (see sidebar pg 74). But by and large, it looks like we’re going to wake up on January 1 with relatively little promotional fanfare.

“At first, the promotions industry thought the millennium would be a phenomenon,” Einson Freeman’s McElnea asserts, “but there were second thoughts when they began analyzing the situation and putting pen to paper. And at the end of the day, they couldn’t see the potential that appeared to be there at first blush.”

At the very least, maybe Literacy Volunteers of America can stage a cause-marketing campaign to educate consumers that the new millennium doesn’t actually kick off until Jan. 1, 2001.