How One-Day Promos Can Help or Hurt Your Brand

By: Gina Lee De Freitas

Single-day restaurant promotions can build excitement, but they can also backfire. While promotions can build loyalty and increase a restaurant's fan base, they must be executed well or risk alienating the people coming through the door. Here are some Do's and Don'ts.

We’re all familiar with restaurant promos. There’s the tried-and-true classics: buy one-get one free (BOGO), or the punch card that, when punched a certain number of times, leads to a free dessert or appetizer – a reward for customer loyalty. There's also the big one: the single-day promo. Customers line up outside stores, waiting patiently with anticipation. They walk in, dine quickly and scoot out, allowing others to slide in right after them to take advantage of the deal. Some will focus on the promotion exclusively, dragging friends who rarely, if ever, pay attention to the store’s efforts. Hello increased awareness!  

We took a look at some of the most well-known single-day promotions searching for trends and insights. Here’s what we found.  

 IHOP: National Pancake Day 

In 2006, IHOP started celebrating National Pancake Day. Rather than try to tie the single day promotion to a larger purchase, IHOP made a simple bargain with its customers:  

  • Customers get free pancakes 
  • Customers are made aware that there are charities in the area 
  • Customers are informed they can choose to donate to those charities when they come in for pancakes

Quite simple and quite effective. Here in Boulder, National Pancake Day draws throngs of local college students. They form a mob around the local IHOP. Without a lot of disposable income, they donate what they can, lured in by free pancakes. Over the years, IHOP says it’s raised more than $24 million for various charities nationwide. 

Why does this work? IHOP is effectively raising money by donating pancakes for a day. If IHOP had simply donated proceeds from a single day of sales, the promotion may not have been so successful. Getting people to just come into their stores on charity day would be an expensive media push, but offering free pancakes creates a viral explosion of messaging that drives enormous traffic to restaurants. 

IHOP also made use of a cool Twitter trick: the “tailored audience” feature. IHOP was able to personalize Twitter ads, known as “promoted tweets” by incorporating users' names and other fun web treats like animated GIFs. An undertaking this big took an agency, though. AdWeek reports that IHOP used MRM/McCann to create multiple audience groups based on data surrounding popular U.S. names and their nicknames or derivatives. IHOP collects and distributes the money to charity, but what they’re giving away is pancakes, as well as a feel-good message about giving back to the communities that support the restaurant. 

Ben & Jerry’sFree Ice Cream Day 

No charity here - Free Cone Day is an exercise in pure awareness and customer goodwill. Ben & Jerry’s has been promoting a free ice cream day since 1979 - nearly 40 years. But why?  

Our research shows that the Ben & Jerry’s brand is built on an emotional connection to its consumers. That goal is obvious. What’s not obvious is that while other brands may focus overtly on ingredients or grass-fed cows, Ben & Jerry’s makes use of such quality and sustainability standards in service to the higher objective of the emotional connection. Incredibly humble, yet not afraid to push political boundaries, with names like “Save our Swirled,” a flavor evangelizing climate change and “Yes Pecan,” which was a nod to President Barack Obama’s election campaign, Ben & Jerry’s free ice cream day isn’t as much a promotion of the product as it is a PR event for the brand. The day is billed as a delicious way to thank the customers for their loyalty. The goodwill is clear and lasting. Ben & Jerry’s stores are laid back, full of funny names that invite interesting conversation between the staff and customers. And while other ice cream parlors frequently dole out ice cream samples, it may be that the lack of a single-day promotion keeps other ice creams from attaining the iconic status of Ben & Jerry’s.  

McDonald’s“(Rick & Morty) Szechuan Sauce” 

In an attempt to bring customers into stores, McDonald’s unofficially attached itself to the incredibly popular, not-for-kids, animated television show Rick & Morty, which airs late at night on the Cartoon Network. The eponymous characters spend their time pursuing inter-dimensional adventures and, over time, have made famous the idea of a Szechuan-flavored “Mulan McNugget” sauce. For one day and one day only, McDonald’s decided draw in Rick & Morty’s audience by tying its mainstream flare to Cartoon Network’s cult classic – with mixed results.  

The good news? The draw of the Szechuan-flavored sauce was utterly immense. On Oct. 7, 2017, fans of Rick & Morty stood in block-long lines ready to give up their time and their money for a new product from an old brand. 

Unfortunately, though, the promotion fell apart. The demand for the sauce blew McDonald’s away. What their teams had thought was just a fringe group was, in fact, massive. 

Not only that, fans dressed to play the part, only to feel disappointed.

Definitely not getting any Szechuan Sauce today pic.twitter.com/xKvcu6SqL0 — GravityFallsCipher (@TheMysteryofGF) October 7, 2017

There's a happy ending to this promo fail. McDonald's pulled a win out of the jaws of defeat. In February 2018, it brought the sauce back to much fanfare. And made sure there were plenty of packets to go around.

Here are some Do's and Don’ts for single-day promos: 

  1. DO understand the emotional relevance of the promotion. IHOP uses theirs to help charities. Ben & Jerry’s uses theirs to promote appreciation for customers. McDonald’s understood on some level that they were reaching out to a specific audience and making one of their imagined delicacies become a reality. 
  2. DO look into whether or not a single day is worth it. Would a week-long promotion or a season-long promotion serve your brand better? Starbucks draws customers in with its fall season Pumpkin Spice Latte. Available for a limited time, it draws in customers due to its scarcity, but given the timeframe of availability, it doesn’t overwhelm staff – and if it runs out, customers can usually come back later when it’s back in stock.
  3. DO understand the demand for your promised promotion. No one wants to spend time in a line, just to be disappointed. And, if you do run out, communicate early. 
  4. DON’T underestimate how much the effort will reflect first on your brand, before it reflects on your bottom line. McDonald’s folly can be chiefly described as a lack of authenticity; had they gauged their audience, they could have created some extremely goodwill. 
  5. DON’T allow your customers to leave with anything but a smile on their face. Ben & Jerry’s and IHOP have promotions that fill their stores and force their employees into overdrive while asking significant patience from their customers. 


About Butts in Seats!

When it comes to restaurant trends and marketing, IMM knows what they are talking about. Gina Lee De Freiitas, President of IMM, and Corien de Jong, SVP Executive Creative Director, have more than 25 years of experience in the vertical. So when they talk about the tools, tips and resources your restaurant needs to succeed, rest assured they’ve got it covered.

Let's work together

Sign up for our newsletter

What are you interested in?

How to Increase Dining Traffic Overnight & Build Loyalty Over Time

The Retailer's Guide to Acquiring & Retaining Your Best Customers

Driving sales overnight to build brands over time