Promoting an Idea, Not Just a Holiday

Merchants generally do a good job of tying promotional activities to the calendar. We consumers have all just been through a slew of Christmas and post-Christmas sales (whether we celebrate the holiday or not), and I for one am bracing for the imminent onslaught of flower, chocolate, and jewelry offers.

Creativity doesn’t always seem to be on the top of retailers’ agendas, however. Some retailers act as if all they need to do is look ahead to the next big holiday and offer a discount on Valentine’s Day candy, Memorial Day picnic supplies, or anything related to independence for Independence Day. These sorts of offers may entice consumers to buy from your company rather than another, but consider that other retailers are also making offers that may lure your customers to their doors.

So this week I’m going to discuss a business that got out of this rut and designed a unique email marketing campaign around one day that only the masochistic look forward to: Tax Day, the day in mid-April by which taxes must be filed in the U.S. (April 15 is usually the dread date, but as this fell on Saturday in 2000, April 17 had the honor.) The company came up with a creative way to bring consumers to its doors, turning what is for many a day of misery into a fun “happening.”

The Austin Grill is a Tex-Mex restaurant chain based in the Washington, D.C., area. Last year, the chain decided to offer its own “refund” to customers.

Fishbowl, a company that provides email marketing services to restaurants, helped send the offer to the restaurant chain’s opt-in database of 1,966 customers, who had registered via various methods, including sign-up cards in the restaurants. The offer was called “The Austin Grill’s 1040 Refund,” playing on the name of the tax form many Americans file with the government each spring.

Shipped out on the Thursday before the big day, the offer encouraged customers to print the email message and bring it to any Austin Grill the following Monday, April 17, to receive a $10.40 deduction off any check of $20 or more. “Bring your dependents, drown your sorrows, and forget about taxes for another 364 days,” the email read.

And customers did. On that Monday, 205 people came into the restaurant and displayed their coupons, some after calling to confirm that they could make photocopies. And they did so on a day when some district businesses (including one of the Austin Grill’s five locations) were shut down because of protests against the spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

“It was cold, wet, and ugly, so the promotion brought in real dollars that would not have otherwise come in,” says Scott Shaw, the president of Fishbowl and former COO of the Austin Grill. “We also appeared to avoid cannibalization as the rest of the week’s sales remained consistent with expectations. Tuesday through Sunday sales didn’t dip because of our offer on Monday.”

Shaw attributes the success of the campaign in part to the approach of focusing on the creative idea rather than making a simple offer. Austin Grill and Fishbowl worked to turn this onerous day into a lighthearted experience, and consumers responded. Now that’s something to celebrate!

Related reading