Twelve Techniques to Create Successful Promotions

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
written for Specialty Food Magazine
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first article in this series, A Guide to Planning Effective Promotions, we presented a guide to planning successful promotions. In Part 2, we talk about techniques that can make your promotions hum.

Successful promotions should be fun, but they must also sell product. Here are a dozen techniques that can contribute to increased awareness and sales.

1. Get Wild

Customers, staff, suppliers, the press . . . . everyone is super busy. To generate enthusiasm around a promotion, do something that’s wacky and out of the ordinary. The more we create fun, the more effective a promotion will be. A well-designed promotion will differentiate you from the competition. And it should build positive, memorable experiences for customers, which in turn creates great word of mouth.

2. Sell Food, Not the Promotion

Over the years, we’ve become so excited about the events or theatrics of a promotion that we forgot that the key reason is to actually sell product. Remember to always have the product out for sale where it can easily be picked up by customers. A leader’s role is to help staff stay focused on the vision of success and to help make sure that vision is strategically sound. Gauri Thergaonkar, retail manager at the Deli, shared that one mistake she’d made in running promotions was to force a theme onto a product category that just didn’t fit. She became overly caught up in the theme, she explains, rather than just allowing that category to “skip" that particular promotion.

3. Look Through Your Customers’ Eyes

If we’re excited but the customer is not, the promotion is doomed to fail. Thinking through what’s in it for the customer is a huge help and a good benchmark. We want to choose appealing price points, so that it is easy for shoppers to identify what’s on special, giving a solid sense of value. Gauri roleplays in her mind with a customer to make sure that everything is on solid ground. I usually bounce the idea for the promo off of regular customers in person—they feel valued because they’ve been asked, and I learn from the interaction.

4. Create a Clear Vision of Success 

Again, paint a picture of what the promotion will look like if it is a big success. The measurement should include sales levels, and probably also gross margin or net profit contribution. I can’t overly stress the importance of setting sales targets. Every person I talked to emphasized this point; many said their “biggest promotional mistake was failing to do so. Sales targets are a lot more effective when we involve staff in setting them. This is the biggest shortfall I see from well-meaning people who are willing to do the work. Failing to take this step devalues all the other work.

The vision isn’t just about numbers though. It should also include things like: How do customers feel about the product? What is the staff saying about both the product and the promotion? Have we received positive press coverage? What are our suppliers saying about the way we’ve promoted their offerings? Was the promotion more about inventory reduction, short-term sales or long-term awareness? It’s easier to design a promotion when you know what you are trying to accomplish.

5. Get the Boss Involved

There’s a direct correlation between the success of any promotion and the leader’s level of commitment. If people at the top are not behind the promo, it may not generate much momentum with the staff and customers. Conversely, the more we notice the work and sell the promoted items, the more effectively the promotion will run.

Promotions encourage me to do the homework to develop a high level of product expertise. A promotion date ensures that I will get organized and learn a lot more about whatever it is that we’re going to sell than when left to my own devices. For instance, I just made the long overdue 45-minute drive to see the farm that we buy milk from because I knew that we were going to promote a month down the road. It was great to meet the people, relearn why what they do is so special and get a better handle on why their milk is so outstanding. That allows me to do a better job of promoting the cheese and gelato we make at our Creamery, which is based on their milk. Did I think of going earlier? Yes: I’ve been thinking of it regularly for two years.

6. Sell the Staff

My selling energies go, first and foremost, into selling the staff. If the crew buys in and is pumped about a product, sales will likely be good. If I sell them, they will, in turn, successfully sell the customers. (Conversely, if you don’t sell them then what’s going to happen is detrimental: you get good pr, customers come in and staff is either untrained or unenthusiastic.)

At Zingerman’s, it’s our belief that we need to get the message to customers 27 times before they hear it. In preparing for promotions, the staff is basically our customer. We must work hard to give them a good sense of excitement about the product we’re pushing.

7. Name the Promotion

To sell promotions as entities unto themselves, it’s easier to get people focused when they can grab hold of a successful name. “Bagel Tuesday” is easier to remember than “If you go on Tuesday they give you six free bagels when you buy six.”

8. Map Out a Detailed Action Plan

Great ideas are only as effective as their implementation. Once we have visioned a successful promo and gotten the staff on board, we need to lay out all the details that will make it work. Phoebe Frenette, who works in Zingerman’s marketing department, stressed these three areas:

a) Start early. It does not hurt to be six to 12 months out front when doing storewide promos. At the least, you must work two to three months in advance. (You can do promotions with less notice but they work a lot better with advance planning.) It’s smart to be a year ahead with a simple month-by-month promotion calendar. It just makes it much easier to share info, coordinate support, and so on.

b) Find a champion. Any project will be more successful when there’s someone to sing its praises from the early days of planning all the way through to its actual implementation.

c) Get names and dates. Be sure that each action step lists the name of the person responsible for it and the competition date. Without names and deadlines, the work is unlikely to get done and the promotion, no matter how creatively it was conceived, will flop.

9. Build Supplier Support 

Promotions are much easier when you have a positive relationship with your supplier. I want to emphasize the phrase “positive relationship. Getting support is not about demanding handouts from suppliers—it’s about working together cooperatively to build a sustainable win-win relationship that will help all parties involved move forward. When suppliers know that a retailer is going to do something significant to build sales, the more likely they are to contribute meaningfully to the promotion. We get more support when we show them tangible results of previous work—newsletters from last year’s promo, sales goals that are a lot higher than normal sales, and so on.

The more purveyors can help us to promote their products, the better for us, the better for them and the better for our customers who have an opportunity to try something delicious. Purveyor support breaks down into things like samples, ad moneys, personal visits, training materials, sponsoring staff contests, demos. I ask the supplier how they can best assist us; often they’ll have ideas or insights that we can benefit from. It must be a win-win situation.

10. Engage the Press

A promotion with interesting events and activities is perfect for the press to cover. Visits from producers, guest speakers, entertaining events, tie-ins with local non-profits . . . all of these will get print and visual media interested. Remember that press needs to have something solid to report—the fact that we have baguettes on sale at two for the price of one is not particularly newsworthy; a class taught by a French master baker in baguette making is.

11. Sell Some Food 

This can be the most rewarding part of the work. Watching customers enjoy the flavor of our food, or take satisfaction in finding a good value, seeing staff succeed and sales boom makes for a great experience.

12. Track Results

While there’s nothing wrong with running promotions without data gathering, it’s better to track results by making special-offer keys that are tied to ads or doing something as simple as keeping tick marks on a pad of paper by the cash register. A bit of technology and the commitment of the staff to effective tracking will get you the data that will help you best invest marketing dollars. And it provides the chance to measure against the all-important sales targets you’ve set. We often post “scoreboards in staff areas to keep ourselves focused on hitting the targets as the promotion plays out.