Marketing History: The 10 best promotions of the millennium.

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

There’s nothing like the turn of a century to get businesses peering through the mists of time to rediscover their origins. Brewers can look back to the late Middle Ages in Germany. Modern banks got their start in Italy during the Renaissance. Even the information technology business can find its ancestry in the work of mathematician Charles Babbage in the mid-1800s.

Promotion marketers can also proudly participate in this worldwide navel-gazing exercise. Promotion has been a separate marketing discipline for only a few decades, and modern sales promotion tactics go back only about 100 years to the first breakfast cereal coupon. But a quick review of a thousand years of history reveals that smart, strategic promotional thinking has always been important. We, too, can look back on our roots.

1350: Best Product Introduction

The Chinese invent gunpowder, which makes a big bang when it is introduced to Europe. Cannons make castles obsolete, which breaks down feudalism, which leads to the development of centralized government and centralized economies and, ultimately, to promotion marketing.

1400: Best Sports Promotion

The Aztecs play a game vaguely like basketball, but with incentives far more powerful than those that motivated Michael Jordan, the Bulls, and their fans. In tlachtli, the winning team gets to strip spectators of their clothing and jewelry.

1555: Best Brand-Switching Campaign

The Peace of Augsburg entitles European rulers to choose their states’ religions – Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. Their subjects get a choice too: They can switch to their prince’s religion, or they can leave. Forever. Free samples and high-value coupons just can’t match the impact of exile as a brand-switching incentive.

1624: Best Going-Out-of-Business Sale

The Metoac Indians sell a small island to the Dutch for $24 worth of beads and baubles. Within a few decades, the tribe has gone out of business. Under new management, Manhattan prospers. Despite the proliferation of Oriental rug stores and a brief flirtation with bankruptcy under Mayor Ed Koch, New York City itself never even considers another going-out-of business event.

1680: Best Chance Promotion

Lorenzo Tonti, an Italian banker, creates a winner-take-all investment scheme and gives it his name: the Tontine. Each participant contributes an equal amount. The last one alive gets it all. Sadly, consumers today demand more immediate gratification than this benign insurance policy.

1706: Best Cause-Marketing Fundraiser

Fashionable European gentlemen are clean-shaven, except in backward Russia. To help modernize his nation, Czar Peter the Great taxes his subjects’ beards. If they shave, they conform to contemporary European fashion. If they don’t, they help fund Peter’s military and engineering projects. Taxpayers wear a copper token with a picture of a beard and a mustache, later prompting nonprofits to issue doughnut and red-poppy lapel tags to contributors.

1750: Best Membership Program

Dissatisfied English, Scottish, and Irish peasants are invited to sample The New World. They sign up for 10 years as indentured servants to join the Immigration Club. Food, clothing, and shelter are sufficient incentives – no need for frequent-flier miles. One-way steerage included.

1800: Best Employee- Performance Incentive

Great Britian’s Navy under George III gives officers and seamen a percentage of the value of enemy ships they capture using a sliding scale of rank and seniority. Captains get as much as three-eighths of a ship’s worth (37.5%); cabin boys get as little as 0.3 percent. One crew earns 36 years’ pay for an afternoon’s work. This may sound generous to employees today. On the other hand, we don’t have to deal with scurvy and the cat-o’-nine-tails.

1803: Best Buy-One- Get-One Offer

Actually, it’s a “buy one, get three free” promotion. Thomas Jefferson pays France $3 million for the Louisiana Territory. Over the next few decades, the U.S. also gets Texas, California, and the Oregon Territory for free. This is still a profitable deal for France, since the freebie territories belong to Mexico and Great Britain.

1848: Best Traffic-Builder

California’s Gold Rush swells the territory’s population 14 times in one year alone. It incorporates as a state two years later. The phenomenon set new standards for consumer enthusiasm – still visible today when shoppers line up outside stores to await shipments of trendy toys. The Gold Rush notion of claim-jumping is alive and well, too: Just ask any collector who’s gotten elbowed away from the Beanie Baby shelf. Some of today’s breakthrough promotion concepts are nothing but tried and true ideas with new headlines and graphics. The basic formula still works: The right incentive plus the right communication plus the right audience changes behavior to generate tangible results. To quote Sir Isaac Newton in the 1690s: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”


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