Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

As of this writing, no consumer had produced the Jerome Bettis MVP Snickers wrapper worth $2 million as the winning ticket in last summer’s Shock Zone game. It isn’t right, thought promo editors, that the funniest and highest-profile promotion of the year have no big winner. So, while we have no MVP title to bestow, senior franchise manager Mary Klein and her Snickers brand team are going to have to settle for All-Star honors.

Oh, and, sorry Snickers people, there’s no cash prize either.

That’s not the case with any promotion emanating from M&M/Mars headquarters in Hackettstown, NJ, these days. Shock Zone followed a similarly Wonka-esque millennium promo launched earlier in ’98 that put a single bag of red M&Ms in the marketplace with two M’s painted on the candies instead of one (think Roman numerals and Y2K). That one did produce a winner. A delivery person brought lunch to the office of a 25-year-old New York City man with a bag of regular M&Ms – not the peanut M&Ms the guy had ordered – and made him $2 million richer.

But it was Shock Zone that most stimulated the imaginations and funny bones of consumers, thanks to a series of memorable TV spots that had NFL stars such as the Steelers’ Bettis, the Jets’ Curtis Martin, and the Raiders’ Tim Brown training their two-inch-high plastic counterparts to stand out on the electric football field – the vibrating table with the little felt ball that is the leading candidate for the title of “Silliest Sports Game Ever Invented.”

“With all of our promos, the first question we ask is, ‘Do they build brand equity?'” says the 34-year-old Klein, who worked on new products and Children’s Tylenol at Johnson & Johnson before joining M&M/Mars four years ago. “Snickers has always been about hunger. It’s a sports-oriented, action-oriented brand. Its brand imagery is fun and humorous. When somebody brought up this game, we all said, ‘That’s how Snickers would play football.'”

Marketing is such a group effort at Mars (a company where even senior executives sit in three-foot-high cubicles) that Klein claims to not remember who came up with the Shock Zone idea in the first place. All promos are constructed in brainstorming sessions including ad agency BBDO, promo shop TLP, and the Snickers team of Klein, brand manager Chris Jones, promotion manager John Cavaliere, p.r. director Pat D’Amato, and marketing services staffer Arjun Charanjiva. The Mars marketing mandate, notes Klein, is seamless integration.

“We know well in advance that we are going to be doing a major promotion and that it is definitely going to be supported by advertising. That’s why everyone is involved in the creation of the idea,” says Klein. “Sales is also very involved in getting the promotion out to the trade. We want to get consumers involved with our candy bar.”

The Snickers team kicked off Shock Zone with an Electric Football Championship at New York City’s Chelsea Piers, where ex-NFL players Boomer Esiason and Leonard Marshall directed a single-elimination tournament among 200 kids and adults. The TV spots ran for a month at the beginning of the NFL season (Our favorite is the one in which Tim Brown sprinkles after-shave on his teeny alter ego and admonishes him, “Smell that? That’s the smell of an MVP.”), telling consumers to check the insides of their Snickers wrappers for the name of one of 22 players involved in the MVP “game” to be “played” on Sept. 20. Web surfers could follow players’ progress on www.snickersshockzone.com.

Bettis emerged as the MVP in the final spot of the campaign, aired during an NFL TV broadcast. But Shock Zone continues as long as the one Snickers wrapper bearing the name of the beastly running back remains on some nondescript candy counter, or in some landfill. A would-be Charlie has until May to crack open cases of Snickers in search of the wrapper that can help him make a down-payment on his very own Chocolate Factory.

Meanwhile, back at the one in Hackettstown, there’s a group of people who can already snicker over their own success. Klein says Snickers sales posted double-digit increases during the promotional period, and that’s not peanuts for one of the nation’s top-selling candy bars at more than $100 million per annum.

But the Snickers team’s enduring Shock Zone legacy could well turn out to be resurrecting the stupidest board game on the planet. Even if they never do award the $2 million, they will present consolation prizes of 25,000 electric football games.

Historically, retail promotion has been an exercise in window-shopping. Many chains have been hailed as cagey merchandisers, and others boasted consumer insight. But there’s been some sort of plate glass window between retail chains and true strategic promotion, the kind of marketing that makes consumers proud to be seen with your shopping bag. Not that retailers haven’t tried – over the years they’ve hired a cadre of veteran brand marketers away from consumer goods companies. But many left after brief stints, frustrated by a mindset that continued to believe that advertising meant circulars and promotions were sales events.

Then the mid-’90s building boom gave us 20 square feet of store per person, e-commerce brought a new meaning to “just browsing,” and retailers woke up to loyalty marketing and began grooming their brands. The window-shopping is over. Retail promotion has come of age. And the American retailer is promo’s 1998 Marketer of the Year.

Consumers are shopping less often and making shorter trips. That forces retailers to make their brands clear, quickly.

“Shoppers once hit six stores on a mall visit. Now they go to three or four. You want to make damn sure your store is one of these,” says consulting firm Arthur Andersen partner Gregory Rubin. “Over the past 10 years retailers have seen they are a brand and asked, “How do we create a brand to address who we are and what our customers want?’ “

Frank Castiglione, vp-marketing for Mervyn’s California, concurs: “Branding is the most important thing. We like to think of ourselves as brand managers. If you don’t brand yourself, you have no point of distinction.”

THE NEW BRANDING The ultra-competitive landscape last year had retailers digging deep into the promotion bag of tricks for everything from entertainment tie-ins to door-busting premiums. Wal-Mart beamed in country music juggernaut Garth Brooks for an exclusive live concert. Sears partnered with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! for a watch-and-win sweepstakes with prizes like Sears gas grills and Canyon River Blues apparel appearing on the shows. The two-week Wheel of Fortune effort had $3 million in prizes, Sears’s biggest prize pool ever.

Target Stores won two Gold Pro Awards for its School Fundraising Made Simple campaign that let shoppers donate 1 percent of purchases to a local school, just by charging goods to their Target Guest cards. As a separate overlay to the program, Target gave each school a free voicemail system to keep parents and teachers in touch.

For the holidays, Target added Donny and Marie to its stable of celebs just as the couple bowed their new daytime talk show. The Osmonds appeared in Target spots, Target stores, even Target-only holiday CDs. Across the street, Kmart Stores sold Rosie O’Donnell ornaments, donating a percentage of sales to her For All Kids Foundation. (Donations also come year-round from sales of Sesame Street Kids apparel, a new licensing deal with Children’s Television Workshop.)

Kmart and Sears – both on the ropes a few years ago – finished T98 looking rather ruddy. Kmart advanced its turnaround by cutting costs, adding K Store, a new format, and heavily tweaking product assortment. The chain proudly posted its 10th consecutive quarter of increased earnings per share.

Sears posted same-store sales increases and record revenues after years of organizational soul-searching.

“We’re focusing more today on innovative and effective promotions,” says senior executive vp marketing John Costello. “We try to provide the right balance between brand building and sales promotion.” Highlights from T98 include the WNBA Jam N Scram, where shoppers guessed how many basketballs fit in a car to win one of 10 Buicks; Sears’ third back-to-school Disney tie-in, Win and Be Wild, awarding family and class trips to Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom; and a holiday tie-in with Disney’s hit A Bug’s Life for a gift-with-purchase and licensed merchandise.

Specialty chains worked hard, too. Builder’s Square’s Save the Tape promotion offered Huffy bicycles for $49 when shoppers bought $300 worth of participating brands. To promote The Milk Mustache Book – a collection of ads now selling as art – a Border’s Books contest photographed winners with their own milk mustaches. Tosca Corp. made its Union 76 gas brand the official fuel of NASCAR, with Official Pit Stop promos in its 2,400 Circle K stores including the Gas for Life sweeps that gave out 8.5 million game pieces. Tie-ins with Coke and Budweiser were pegged to NASCAR races, with a month-long fete in Phoenix in October.

“We’re thinking outside the box. We want bigger and more far-reaching consumer promotions,” says Tosca Marketing manager of retail sales promotions Art Tinajero.

Supermarkets have embraced frequent-shopper cards to refine their targeting, using household purchase data to tailor promotion offers. Dick’s Supermarkets in central Wisconsin was the first to tap Relationship Marketing Group’s program that mails customized shopping lists based on what shoppers bought in the last month. Ralph’s Supermarkets punched up its loyalty card program with a Cash & Cars Million Dollar Dream sweeps that gave away a Ford Explorer and $1 million in cash prizes. Shoppers were automatically entered every time they used their cards. Ralph’s gave away a $10,000 prize every day for 10 weeks.

ALWAYS LOCAL-COLA Perhaps the biggest nod to retailers’ power was Coca-Cola’s $75million summer push for its Coca-Cola Card. Coke signed 9,500 retail partners – from bowling alleys and pizza joints to clothing and record stores – to give special deals to teen cardholders. Coke handed out millions of cards in sleeves with retail partners’ logos and offers – 280 renditions in all.

Mall management firm Simon Property Group (formerly Simon DeBartolo Group) broke new ground pitching its 150 malls as media centers, signing promotion partnerships with Pepsi-Cola Co. and Visa USA, with more on the horizon.

Where will retail promotion go from here? It’s headed toward the most intimate level: the individual shopper. “Customer-specific marketing is the biggest, most exciting news in retailing today,” says Arthur Andersen’s Rubin.

Watch for relationship marketing to bloom – in small gardens as well as large. Small retailers thrive by knowing their customers well. Consider Zane’s Cycles, a Branford, CT, store that’s grown to a $3 million business by paying close attention to customers.

” It’s better to build a long-term relationship,” says president Chris Zane, whio started the business in 1981 at age 16. He deftly manipulates his database to match customers with needs. Every year Zane combs the list to find who bought baby bike seats two years earlier, then sends about 60 post cards advertising kids’ bikes, with a 50 percent response rate. When a supplier had a closeout on large size bike shorts, Zane tapped the database to find 150 customers who recently bought large size clothes. “We sold 50 or 60 pairs of shorts,” he says.

In the end, that’s the best way to turn window-shopping into a sale: One pair of shorts at a time.


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