Customer Relations: White Castle finds a different way to romance patrons

While White Castle might not sit atop the list for lovebirds on St. Valentine's Day, that was not the thinking over at the fast-food establishment known for its little steamed hamburgers.

While White Castle might not sit atop the list for lovebirds on St. Valentine's Day, that was not the thinking over at the fast-food establishment known for its little steamed hamburgers.

So after achieving success promoting White Castle as a Valentine's Day destination in cities like Minneapolis, Detroit, and St. Louis, the company set its sights this year on Cincinnati.

The chain turned to Justice & Young Public Relations (J&Y). While White Castle had been doing St. Valentine's Day events elsewhere for the past 10 years, the Greater Cincinnati market never really had a proactive publicity push, says J&Y VP Rodger Roeser.

In only a matter of weeks, a three-person team at J&Y devised an idea that ended up being the most successful St. Valentine's Day event ever for White Castle.

Strategy

While Roeser admits that the idea of White Castle as a romantic destination was a bit kitchy, he also realized that local TV stations and newspapers could not resist covering it.

The strategy involved transforming the 42 Cincinnati-area White Castles with dining rooms into classier destinations, complete with tablecloths, music, candles, and even waiters.

Meanwhile, Greg Poe, a White Castle district supervisor in Cincinnati, says that local restaurants were available to take reservations. Moreover, given the experience at other White Castles during previous St. Valentine's Day events, he knew some customers would go all out, dressing up and even taking limousines.

"We hear many stories from married 'cravers' for whom White Castle is a special part of their lives together ... and it has remained so for them," Poe says.

Tactics

On the media side, Roeser sent out romantic, personal invitations to the local media, followed by more strategic outreach - all without any paid advertising.

White Castle also issued a press release on February 4, promoting candlelight dining on St. Valentine's Day and the ability to make reservations at restaurants - the first time reserved seating was made available on St. Valentine's Day.

"White Castle gets a bum rap in the industry, but we have many loyal customers," Poe adds.

J&Y also sent out a series of news releases and media alerts to the Cincinnati media to drum up interest - leading to coverage in the local press and on radio, and even national attention in the form of a CNN report.

Results

When St. Valentine's Day arrived, Cincinnati-area White Castles had 330 reservations and a significant number of walk-ins, says Poe.

"One couple had their 63rd wedding anniversary," he says.

Although St. Valentine's Day fell on a Monday this year, Poe says that Cincinnati White Castles had a revenue increase of $15,000 over a typical Monday.

"We were caught by surprise that we got such a rapid and energetic response from our customers," he adds.

"We were able to capitalize on a [typically] slow day," Roeser says, adding that the expertise and contacts of other J&Y team members helped make the campaign a success.

Local media coverage was outstanding, says Roeser, as local newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks ate up the event. He adds that as more media attention was given leading up to St. Valentine's Day, the number of reservations steadily increased.

"We pride ourselves on fun and creativity, and this program truly went off without a hitch," Poe says. "J&Y earned a vast amount of media coverage, but more important, it strategically hit the mark and did what it was supposed to do - put people in the seats."

Future

The St. Valentine's Day event was so successful that White Castle is looking to have a similar one in October for Sweetest Day, a sort of St. Valentine's Day for the fall, Poe adds.

PR team: Justice & Young Public Relations (Cincinnati) and White Castle (Columbus, OH)

Campaign: Valentine's Day at White Castle

Time frame: January to February 2005

Budget: $1,000

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