The Good and Bad of Gimmicks

Gimmick is a dirty word in the marketing world, especially now when there’s such a focus on genuine engagement with one’s customer base. However, when done properly, a gimmick can be a successful marketing tactic that promotes engagement. On the flip side, a gimmicky misstep can quickly turn your audience against you.

The Arby’s Network

Arby’s has been around since 1964, and is one of the nation’s largest fast food chains, with more than 3,300 locations and sales of more than $3.6 billion in 2016. However, the Great Recession hit the company hard, and from 2008 to 2010 it experienced losses so dramatic that one analyst claimed, “Arby’s performance is amongst the worst in modern restaurant history.” However, executives managed a masterful turnaround, taking opportunities like Jon Stewart’s teasing and Pharrell’s fashion choices to put them in the spotlight again.

Beyond those popular posts, in 2015 company’s social channels developed what appears to be an ongoing gimmick with the posting of three hashbrowns in the shape of a triforce. For those who aren’t part of “geek culture,” the design is an emblem from the video game series Legend of Zelda. The tweet garnered more than 2,600 retweets and prompted replies such as, “You will receive cash from me this week solely on the basis of this tweet,” and, “This post alone makes me want to go to Arby’s right now!”

From there, the company’s social media nods to niche pop culture only grew in scale, up to more recent images featuring intricate builds of everything from video game controllers to anime characters, all using Arby’s packaging or food products. The chain’s food and branding are usually afterthoughts in the photos, often a sandwich or the logo in the background. Arby’s is even showing up at comic, gaming, and anime conventions, conducting a series of scavenger hunts for themed packaging creations at this year’s Anime Expo using the hashtag #ArbysArtDrop.

There’s no denying that this appeal to nerdier customers is a gimmick, but it’s one that seems to be working well: Arby’s recent “Game of Thrones” post has more than 3,000 shares and 48,000 likes. Thought it can’t be directly correlated to the effort, the company is also enjoying phenomenal growth, notching 25 straight quarters of growth by the end of 2016.

The Starbucks Unicorn

There’s no disputing 2016 was the year of rainbows – rainbow-colored everything, from bagels to hair, easily went viral, and coffee giant Starbucks saw an opportunity to cash in. The craze continued into 2017, which is when Starbucks made its move.

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On April 18, Starbucks announced the Unicorn Frappuccino®, which would be available starting the next day for only five days or until supplies ran out. The drink was bright purple, with a neon blue stripe along the inside of the cup that, when mixed with the drink, turned it pink. The chain described the drink as mango flavored, with sour drizzle and powder, but many customers claimed it tasted terrible. For most restaurants, a foul-tasting product would be bad publicity, but for Starbucks, it didn’t even slow down sales, with most locations running out before the limited-time drink’s availability was scheduled to end.

In the long term, the drink gave Starbucks a noticeable increase in sales and proved that quirky limited-time drinks are a viable marketing ploy for the company. Despite currently facing a lawsuit about the brightly hued drink, executives have indicated that more short-run drinks are coming soon.

2017: A Chicken Odyssey

Defying the company’s boom in international sales, the decade preceding 2016 saw KFC’s sales in the U.S. on a steady decline, with more than 1,200 stores closing over the course of 14 years. One of the first steps in turning that around was what the company called its “Re-Colonelization,” where the iconic Colonel Sanders was reintroduced to marketing. In May of 2015, an ad starring Darrell Hammond as the Colonel was released, the first in a string of campaigns starring different comedians as the chain’s founder. The response was mostly positive, and the campaign has continued through this year, when the Colonel, played by Rob Lowe, announced the company would send a chicken sandwich to space.

The announcement was met with skepticism – many people assumed this was pure marketing, and no actual launch would be forthcoming. As it turns out, KFC was completely serious. The chain partnered with World View, a commercial launch provider, to send a Zinger sandwich to space using a high-altitude balloon to get to the stratosphere. After a brief launch delay, the project was a success, as demonstrated by this perhaps overly dramatic video.

The sandwich has returned to Earth, but the marketing impact of the gimmick lives on and the announcement video starring Rob Lowe is up to almost 11.5 million views.

Vespertine the Extra-Terrestrial

There are marketing gimmicks, and then there are restaurants whose whole existence seems to be a gimmick, and Vespertine seems to be the latter. The restaurant is the latest endeavor of Chef Jordan Kahn, who has named one of Food & Wine‘s best new chefs for 2017.

Descriptions of the restaurant seem to be esoteric at best, even on its own website, where the “About” page claims the business to be “a place of cognitive dissonance that defies categorization.” The curvy building housing the restaurant is two stories tall, with a glass exterior covered by a red steel grid, and according to Kahn, “is a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers.” No detail is too small for the Vespertine team; even the manufacturer’s stamp on the foot of every wine glass has been smoothed off to help ensure full immersion.

The restaurant only opened in July and has incredibly limited seating. The cost of the meal is a $250 minimum, excluding drinks, and most who have been seem to think the price is very much worth it, though there has been some negative feedback about the “intentionally joyless” immersive experience.

A Summerhill State of Mind

Summerhill is one of the best examples of a gimmick gone wrong in a big way. The small “boozy sandwich shop” recently opened on a corner in Brooklyn in Crown Heights, a neighborhood that’s been gentrifying in a way that long-time residents view as negative.

Owner Becca Brennan’s (possibly unintentional) contribution to gentrification may have been enough to anger some residents, but her attempt to turn the neighborhood’s sometimes violent history into a gimmick definitely didn’t go over well. A press release announcing the shop’s opening asserted, “Yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there, and, yes, we’re keeping it.” The press image release also included an image of a cocktail in front of said wall, complete with holes that were later determined to not be bullet holes at all. In addition to this questionable marketing gimmick, Brennan sells “40s” of rosé, and joked about serving them in paper bags, according to a July article on Gothamist.

Soon after the press release, signs went up around the neighborhood opposing the restaurant’s presence, and it wasn’t long before the sidewalk nearby was filled with local residents staging an open foru

Courtney Barkley
Courtney Barkley

Courtney Barkley has lived in nearly as many southeastern states as most Americans have probably visited, settling in East Tennessee in early 2013. She and her husband Thomas were married during ShadoCon 2012 – an anime, gaming, and comics convention – in a ceremony that featured a reading about dinosaurs in love from a friend dressed as Doctor Who. She spends her free time chasing her brilliant and imaginative son Nathan, hanging out with friends, binge-watching shows, playing video games, and keeping up with the characters of the Marvel Universe. And, any chance she gets, she sneaks off to Florida to visit friends and the happiest place on earth – Disney World.