Sampling lets fast-food chains engage new, existing customers

USA Today recently reported that Sonic, owner of the largest chain of drive-in restaurants in the US, was the latest fast-food company to adopt the marketing strategy of giving away free food.

USA Today recently reported that Sonic, owner of the largest chain of drive-in restaurants in the US, was the latest fast-food company to adopt the marketing strategy of giving away free food.

On June 7, Sonic gave away 3 million 10-ounce floats from 8pm to midnight, hoping the attention would help bolster sales.

Wendy's is currently undergoing a national hamburger tour that launched in Charlotte, NC, and will be making its way to 25 cities this summer, says Bob Bertini, Wendy's communications director. One thousand hamburgers will be cooked on the spot, and 2,000 gift cards worth $5 each will be given away in the 25 markets, totaling an estimated 75,000 free burgers.

Why does it matter?

"Sampling is just one component of a much larger hamburger focus," says Bertini. "It's one thing to talk about a hamburger. It's another thing to actually try it."

He sees sampling as a way to engage consumers outside of the regular customer base.

Shannelle Armstrong, McDonald's Oak Brook, IL-based manager of US communications, says that it's a great opportunity to have consumers sample products at PR events because it gives them an opportunity to taste the product and provide instantaneous feedback.

In addition, McDonald's views sampling as a way to further build the existing relationship that it has with customers, Armstrong notes. Sampling of products can foster loyalty with potential consumers who might not be inclined to try a product if they had to pay money for it.

She also explains that for most customers, samplings and free giveaways break down the barrier to the products. If people don't have to pay for it, they are more eager to taste and try the product. "The most critical thing you can do as part of the overall strategic intent to drive awareness and trial of the product is sampling," Armstrong says.

Five facts:

1 Sales at quick-service restaurants brought in $136.5 billion in 2005, and the National Restaurant Association has forecasted sales of $142.4 billion in 2006, a more than 5% increase.

2 On March 21, the first day of spring, Dunkin' Donuts gave out 3 million cups of iced coffee on its first-ever, all-day, nationwide "Free Iced Coffee Day."

3 Pizza Hut declared a "Free Slice of Pizza Day" on May 1 to give everyone in America an opportunity to sample its "New and Improved" hand-tossed style pizza.

4 Baskin-Robbins implemented a "31-Cent Scoop Night" on May 2 to highlight the association of the price with the chain's 31 different flavors.

5 Bruegger's is celebrating the first day of summer, June 21, by giving away a free iced coffee to any guest who comes into participating stores nationwide from 2pm to 4pm.

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