History in the Making: The Most Significant Promotions of the Last 15 Years

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

1 McDonald’s Monopoly (1987)

Monopoly marathons at the summer cabin are kid stuff compared with the mileage McDonald’s has gotten from its use of the world-famous board game.

Big Mac has been able to play the game for so long (and annually since 1991) because Monopoly works on many levels. Its big prizes drove interest. Its collect-and-win format drove repeat traffic. Its massive ad support (about $5 million over the first year’s six-week run) drove awareness. And hey, people already knew how to play.

Over the years, Big Mac tweaked the game to keep it fresh, adding partners like Chevrolet and Best Buy in 1999 and Zenith in 2000 and the occasional cause component (like a $50,000 scholarship via Junior Achievement in ‘99).

The game itself “has become a true McDonald’s equity,” said then-senior vp-U.S. marketing Brad Ball in 1998 (shortly before he left the company). From its humble beginnings as Play Monopoly at McDonald’s (run to support the new McDLT), the game became increasingly complex, with the 2001 iteration offering a Pick Your Prize twist. Simon Marketing handled throughout (with P-O-P from Frankel).

Alas, the run may be over, since last year’s version had the most surprising twist of all: The FBI used it to collect evidence against an embezzlement ring that allegedly had been stealing high-value gamepieces through the years.

2 Bud Bowl (1989)

Anheuser-Busch went for extra points on its Super Bowl advertising with an ad-driven sweepstakes starring Budweiser and Bud Light.

Bottles of beer played their own game in spots that ran intermittently during the real contest. The bottle battle gave viewers the chance to win cash (the top prize eventually hit $1 million) by matching the score presented in spots at the end of each quarter with one on an in-pack gamepiece.

It was the kind of ad/promo teamwork that gets an extra mile out of a super-sized ad spend. Louis London (now Momentum) handled the sweeps, with DDB Needham creating the ads. Even better, Bud Bowl got retailers to give the brands extra display space in a crucial time period.

By the mid-1990s, Bud Bowl was helping boost January sales about 20 percent. Over 10 years, A-B trained distributors and retailers — not to mention football fans — to expect the promo.

Bud Bowl itself was retired from spots in 1996 but revived in ’99 with its own “cyberstadium” at budbowl.com and 20 million gamepieces in packs of Bud, Bud Light, and Bud Ice carrying a section, row, and seat number. This year’s Bud Bowl went live with three days of concerts and events in host city New Orleans.

3 CBS/Kmart Get Ready Giveaway (1989)

The revelation was that you had to go beyond television to sell television,” explains Jeffrey McElnea, then ceo of promo shop Einson Freeman (now head of The Jeffrey Group).

And with that, CBS kicked off a new decade for TV marketing, which began using promotion to not only draw viewers but provide more value for advertisers; for strategic partnering (the network and the chain swapped $25 million in media but not a dollar in cash); and for marketing in general, which began moving way beyond a product’s own distribution channels.

The massive campaign used the now-common Watch & Win tactic to boost the new fall programming lineup in a game offering six million prizes. In exchange for on-air real estate (as well as mentions in network radio spots and print ads), Kmart offered P-O-P space in 2,275 stores and a four-page insert in 72 million circulars. Ratings jumped 28 percent from 1988.

CBS ran similar sweeps through the mid-’90s. “When you find something that works, you keep going with it,” says CBS executive vp-marketing George Schweitzer, who as vp-communications back then was credited for escorting his network — and the broadcast industry — into promotion. The campaign was hatched by Kmart shop Ross Roy Group (now InterOne) and developed with the help of Einson and Backer Speilvogel Bates.

4 Oreo Twist (1990)

Rock ‘n roll legend Chubby Checker danced his way across TV screens, Oreo in hand. Meanwhile, shoppers danced in-store, and a new legend was launched.

Those first Oreo Twist summer events took place in 8,300 supermarkets, with costumed character Twistin’ Oreo handing out samples, coupons, and toys. Grocers bought 50-plus cases to qualify for visits, and sales jumped double digits. Market Growth Resources (now part of Marketing Drive Worldwide) handled.

Since then, Nabisco has built a longstanding strategy of in-store entertainment — but always with the product as star.

“It was the origin of retail-tainment,” says Allan Falvey, Biscuit Group director of promotions at new Nabisco parent Kraft Foods. “A lot of marketers did in-store sampling, but we made it entertaining.”

Nabisco followed in 1991 with Unlock the Magic, sending magicians in-store for cookie sleights of hand. (The earliest foray was in 1988 with Cookie West, a kindly woman who read stories and gave kids cookies and milk.) For the 21st century, the brand rolled out stacking contests, first employed by a Dallas sales rep in 1990 and now running in 15,000 stores.

“I’m still in touch with Chubby Checker,” Falvey laughs. “He calls every six months or so.”

5 NutraSweet 10th Anniversary (1991)

NutraSweet Co. wanted to throw a party that would celebrate its food and beverage customers — the companies that actually buy aspartame — as much as its own brand. The sweetener’s patent was winding down, so it needed strong awareness to fend off upcoming competition.

As an ingredient, NutraSweet didn’t have a consumer product — but it did have an icon: The red swirl stamped on all 5,000-plus products that use it, from gumballs to Diet Coke.

There was only one other thing those products had in common: UPCs. So NutraSweet and its agency, Hadley Group, created a sweeps that used UPCs as gamecodes. In one of the earliest large-scale uses of telepromotions, players called an 800-number and punched in the UPC of any product containing NutraSweet. The top prize was a trip to one of the 50 countries in which NutraSweet was sold.

A sophisticated phone system routed calls either to a “try again” message or a live operator, and the messages were customized for NutraSweet’s key customers.

The sweeps garnered 1.5 million entries and helped cement NutraSweet’s equity.

“Patents expire, but brands endure,” says Jim Mitchel, then NutraSweet director of marketing (now with software maker Mercantec). “Those sweeps helped extend the life of the brand.”

6 Soviet Union Going Out of Business Sale (1992)

And to think it was supposed to be a sweeps giving away Elvis memorabilia.

But the King’s estate wanted $1 million in licensing fees, so Barq’s marketing team (with an assist from Jordan Bochanis Associates) turned to world news in December 1991 to find a hook — and hatched a creative concept considered to be one of the best ever.

The collapse of the Soviet Empire certainly was top of mind, “and we figured Gorbachev had more important things to worry about than licensing rights,” laughs Rick Hill, then Barq’s vp-national marketing (and now with Hewlett-Packard).

To make sure the hook would stay fresh for the May campaign, Barq’s unveiled its plan publicly in January — before the details were even ironed out. It was only after the media went wild for the idea that Hill flew to Russia to buy authentic paraphernalia through the black market.

National TV spots, print ads, packaging and P-O-P touted the offer: Pieces of the fallen empire (pins, stamps, ribbons) for proofs of purchase and “100 rubles” (about $1).

The campaign gave Barq’s a 30-percent volume lift, achieved its primary objective of getting bottlers to start distributing 12-packs, and proved “the power of creativity in a strategic situation,” says Hill. “At the time, the standard to beat was a 30-cent bounce-back coupon.”

7 Marlboro Miles (1993)

It wasn’t the first, but it did prove to be the best loyalty program of the era — and it gave Philip Morris at least one marketing strategy it could maintain after The Master Settlement Agreement in 1998.

In response to rival R.J. Reynolds’ Camel Cash, PM rolled out a $200 million continuity program called the Marlboro Adventure Team that let smokers collect on-pack “miles” to redeem for merchandise from a special catalog. More than 14 million items were ordered during the initial campaign.

Since then, the program has run under various names — Country Store, Unlimited, Party in a Box, and the current Cowboy Chronicles — and different hooks. Cyrk, Inc. and Leo Burnett helped launch the effort; Burnett flies solo now. (By the way: Camel Cash burned out by ’97.)

“We see the program not only as a way to drive purchases but as a wonderful tool for reinforcing our equity with adult smokers,” says Marlboro vp Suzanne LeVan.

New restrictions mean the merchandise is now logo-free and catalogs can only be distributed by request. (Applicants must qualify with government-issued identification as proof of age). But the spirit lives on: The program to date has doled out more than 135 million items.

8 Guinness Win Your Own Pub in Ireland (1994)

When the topic is “ownable” concepts that truly reflect the brand’s essence, this one always gets named first.

The goal was to win back St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish (so to speak), and Guinness agencies Creative Alliance and Weiss Whitten & Stagliano knew they had a killer concept “when we both had it on our lists,” says Creative partner Nick Lemma. The campaign that was pitched cost about $1 million more than had been budgeted, but after Guinness group marketing director Todd Stevenson heard it, “He just told us, ‘Make it work,’” says Lemma. “Two weeks later, we were on a plane to Ireland.”

The simple idea was to get the brand’s devout followers to describe the “perfect pint” for a shot at a trip to Ireland to win the pub. A total of 30,000 entries poured in, but “what made the promotion such a hit was the p.r. spin,” says Stevenson, now managing director of Guinness UDV Japan. “We had tremendous news coverage” that included 40 U.S. publications traveling to the contest.

The ultimate winner was a charismatic Bostonian who surprised everyone by actually taking the pub instead of the cash equivalent. “It was a campaign you dream about being involved in,” says Lemma. It had longevity, too: Guinness ran the program for six years before retiring it after a 1999 flight.

9 Saturn Homecoming (1994)

When General Motors’ folksy little Saturn division invited owners to Spring Hill, TN, to see where their cars were made, 40,000 came — proving that brand equity can be a living, breathing experience.

The two-day Homecoming had Olympic skater Dan Janssen as emcee and Wynonna Judd and Bebe & Cece Wynans for entertainment, but the real draw was the factory tour. Saturn staggered tours to accommodate the crowd, sending half to nearby Opryland while the other half surveyed the plant. A massive storm cut the second day short and flooded the parking lot, but “there was not one sad face in the crowd” even as folks pushed each other’s cars out of the mud, recalls organizer Sandy Belvedere.

With just one full-time colleague and only nine months to prepare, Belvedere organized Saturn volunteers into about a dozen teams, each handling one task. (Carlson Marketing Group assisted). “We knew how to build cars. We didn’t know how to throw a party like that,” laughs Belvedere.

Homecoming also sparked understanding of “the need for us to handle our relationship with customers,” so after the tents came down Belvedere became marketing relationship manager to set up a database that now serves as a prime prospecting tool. Saturn held a second Homecoming in 1999.

10 Windows 95 Launch (1995)

The company that revolutionized computing “evolutionized” marketing by conducting the first simultaneous worldwide product launch long before “Think Global, Act Local” became a catch-phrase.

As is now common for Microsoft Corp., it was an expensive campaign: A $200 million blitz designed to make Windows 95 a household word for the uninitiated and a must-buy for computer users.

The date was Aug. 25: From the four-story Windows 95 box that sailed into Sydney Harbor on a barge, to the software presented publicly to Fidel Castro, to the media submarine trip in Poland (to symbolize “a world without Windows”), Microsoft blanketed the earth with a bevy of unique events. In London, the company bought the entire 1.5 million-paper press-run of the London Times to give away, while headquarters in Redmond played host to a Webcasted carnival capped by a Jay Leno appearance. Across the country, retail stores hosted “Midnight Madness” openings.

It took a year for the 60-member marketing team to put the pieces together. Windows 95 sold one million copies in its opening weekend and seven million by the end of the year. The world was Microsoft’s.

11 McDonald’s/Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (1996)

The campaign itself was a solid tie-in that generated a new Happy Meal sales record — and raised the bar for premium giveaways by offering 101 different toys. (Simon Marketing, Los Angeles, handled premiums and Frankel, Chicago, in-store activity.)

But the true significance rested in the deal that made the campaign possible: A 10-year marketing alliance between Walt Disney Co. and McDonald’s Corp. that not only altered the QSR landscape — by completely shutting out rival Burger King from Disney properties — but the industry overall: The age of long-term strategic alliances had begun.

The initial pact has gone well beyond property tie-ins to include organic, global initiatives (like 1999’s Millennium Dreamers scholarship campaign). And it has become a testament to what partners who truly understand each other’s businesses can accomplish.

It also has produced strong results. In fact, only halfway through the original deal, the companies are already talking about re-upping when the contract expires in 2006.

“People tend to discount it now, as ‘Oh, another Disney-McDonald’s tie-in,’” says Brett Dicker, who was Walt Disney Pictures senior vp-promotions in 1996 (and has since ascended to executive vp-marketing for Buena Vista Pictures). “Like everyone wouldn’t give their eyeteeth to get a tie-in with McDonald’s.

Of course, Disney’s no slouch either.

12 Nick in the Afternoon (1996)

Speaking of alliances, Kraft Foods proved their effectiveness both within and without through Nick in the Afternoon, a back-to-school campaign that kicked off not only a two-year, $60 million pact but a partnership that is now as regular as back-to-school.

It was the first time Kraft had leveraged the equity — not to mention the potential collective retail clout — of its multiple products under the Kraft Kids Brands umbrella. Built around the launch of Nick’s new programming block, the campaign used a now-standard on-air, on-pack sweepstakes formula that gave Kraft heavy air time and brought Nick into grocery stores. Incremental merchandising jumped 19.6 percent and volume sales rose an average of 3.4 percent across the 25 participating brands. Market Growth Resources handled.

The effort — heralded then as the biggest promotional partnership in packaged goods history — signaled a push by Kraft to move well beyond TV spots to “everyplace that kids are,” as (now-retired) vp-advertising Dick Helstein explained at the time.

It also signaled upstart cable network Nick’s emergence as not just the media source for reaching kids but also one of the most committed partners around.

“It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” says Nick senior vp-marketing Pam Kaufman, who joined the net shortly after that first campaign. “We’ve raised the bar year after year.”

13 Pepsi Stuff (1996)

What began as a gutsy teen continuity program has been transformed into a textbook example on how to successfully marry online and offline strategies.

Pepsi-Cola Co. first launched Pepsi Stuff in summer 1996 to bump single-product sales. A Marlboro Miles for the teen set (developed by the same folks at Cyrk, Inc.), the program encouraged teens to save and mail in points from packaging to earn merchandise from a special catalog.

The effort produced strong enough results for a repeat performance in 1997, this time with sister brand Mountain Dew on board. But the costs of distributing 100 million-plus catalogs and warehousing and fulfilling the rewards pool “got a little bit out of hand,” says John Vail, Pepsi’s director of digital media and marketing. “We couldn’t keep running it on that model, so we went on hiatus.”

Hello PepsiStuff.com, a new model “powered by Yahoo” that debuted in summer 2000, with points still flagged on packaging but stored through online accounts and redeemed through e-tail partners. (TLP handled offline work, Tribal DDB the online Stuff.)

More than two million people participated that first year. The campaign ran again last October, this time adding more brands to the effort and “virtual awards” like downloadable music to the prize pool.

How’s that ROI now?

14 Crossing Bridges (1997)

Promotion’s emergence from the packaged-goods world was never exemplified more dramatically than through this campaign which — at the risk of sounding melodramatic — used promotion to save lives.

After decades of marketing to doctors, Schering Oncology Biotech was looking for a way to directly reach melanoma patients using its Intron A cancer drug — 70 percent of whom were stopping treatment within three months because of the drug’s uncomfortable side effects. Schering hired DVC Group to develop a compliance program to motivate them to persevere.

Patients who signed on for treatment received an initial binder filled with information and monthly follow-ups. The collateral included a picture of a stream over which was an unfinished bridge; at the end of each month’s treatment, patients could add another piece. Meanwhile, a help network assigned each patient a “buddy” who had completed the program and a personal nurse who could be called toll-free (DVC client AT&T also provided free phonecards). Family and friends received information on how to be “coaches.”

Compliance levels jumped 32 percent that first year, which is why the program is still used. “Crossing Bridges was a true innovation in the pharmaceutical industry,” says former Schering vp-marketing Frank Musat, now with Pharmacia Corp. “Doing things the way they have ‘always been done’ is no longer an acceptable way of moving forward.”

15 Betcha Can’t Taste the Difference (1999)

It was straightforward brand positioning with deceptively simple execution: Malt-O-Meal bagged cereal tastes as good as pricier, boxed national brands. What better way to show that than to have identical twins sample the cereals side-by-side?

Thus, the brand offered a perfect benchmark on the road to sophisticated promotion, taking an age-old tactic like in-store sampling and turning it into one of the strongest branding messages of the decade.

That sophistication was demonstrated through the details involved in agency WatersMolitor’s prep work, which began with the search for twins: Four sampling companies shunned the concept, and only one would even bid the job. Super Marketing (now Mosaic) hunted down 179 sets of identical twins 18 and older who lived near each other, still looked alike, and were outgoing. Then S&MG worked backwards, starting with twins’ locales and schedules. TDLinx data pinpointed stores with high cereal volume near the twins’ homes.

Retailers had to buy a pallet of product — a lot for a second-tier brand — but liked the concept so much they also gave samplers front-of-store space. Sell-in hit 95 percent and incremental volume skyrocketed 800 percent.

More importantly, the tabletops-and-toothpicks model was laid to rest.

16 Lucky Loves You (1999)

It’s not easy being a smoker — or a tobacco marketer. But if there was any silver lining to the government restrictions placed on Brown & Williamson and its peers, it was the focus they’re now forced to place on existing customers.

To reach them, Lucky Strike has worn its hearts on its sleeve. “We, Brown & Williamson Tobacco, are in love with you,” cooed the customer service hotline recording that launched Lucky Loves You in ‘99. “We’re a giant tobacco corporation and you make us feel like a little kitten.”

The brand’s efforts are all about appreciation. Strike Teams head into the streets offering hot coffee in winter and ice water in summer to the huddled masses smoking outside office buildings. Folding chairs are provided for smokers in parks, and roses to anyone lighting up on Valentine’s Day. Bates Worldwide, New York City, handles.

The gestures of affection are never compromised with the distribution of coupons or sales information, and are accompanied only by a calling card stating, “Lucky Loves You.”

“We know how hard it is to be a smoker,” says brand manager Beth Broughton. “We’ve come forward to say ‘We value you.’”

Ageless Wonders


CRACKER JACK PRIZES (1912) Nineteen years after its invention (and 12 years after the name was trademarked), Cracker Jack begins promising “A prize in every box.”

PROCTOR & GAMBLE COUPONS (1920) The first ones were metal coins good for discounts or buy-one-get-one deals. Those were soon replaced by cheaper, more convenient paper versions, but have been a constant ever since.

MACY’S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE (1924) The grand-daddy of all marketing events was originally organized by a handful of volunteer, immigrant employees.

OVALTINE DECODER RINGS (1930) You needed the ring to decode secret messages broadcast on Little Orphan Annie radio shows in the ’30s and Texas Rangers TV shows in the ’50s. Licensees have rarely had this much media support.

OSCAR MAYER WIENERMOBILE (1936) The first model cost $5,000 and was driven by a midget. Seven updates and 66 years later, it’s now an entire package with eight vehicles.

PILLSBURY BAKE-OFF (1949) Eleanor Roosevelt presented the first award; Marie Osmond has the honors in 2002. Men and kids are allowed to compete now, too.

U.S. NAVY FROGMEN (1950) In-pack premiums and mail-in offers helped Kellogg begin turning its brand icons into household celebrities.

HESS OIL TRUCKS (1965) Collectable toy trucks modeled after Hess’s own fleet launch a holiday staple for the gas station industry.

CAMPBELL’S LABELS FOR EDUCATION (1973) Cause marketing plus continuity program equals 29 years of goodwill.

PEPSI CHALLENGE (1975) The upstart took it right at goliath Coke by offering blind taste tests. Cruising for a New Generation, Challenge relaunched in 2000 after 17 years off.

MCDONALD’S HAPPY MEALS (1979) They won the hearts of preschoolers and the handbags of moms — and made McDonald’s the world’s largest toy manufacturer.

P&G’S SPECIAL OLYMPICS SPONSORSHIP (1979) Cause marketing that’s simple and truly from the heart: Dedicated coupons make a donation with each purchase.

AMERICAN AIRLINES AADVANTAGE (1981) The first-ever frequent-flier program created a new currency and set the gold standard for loyalty marketing. It now has 44 million members.

REESE’S PIECES IN E.T. (1982) Bond may never have driven BMW nor Cruise sported Ray-Bans had not Spielberg’s alien taken a shine to Hershey’s product extension (after M&M famously took a pass).

GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS (1955) Guinness Brewery’s managing director wanted a book to settle a dispute. The rest is history.


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