Everyone’s a sucker for free stuff, unless it’s insulting

No more useless junk please. I can't help myself.

No more useless junk please. I can’t help myself.

We’ve all been suckered by incentives. I know I have. There I am, standing in front of a wall of vodka at the liquor store, and I’ve made up my mind. I go to reach for what I always reach for, but…something catches my eye. A tiny bottle of ice wine hanging around the neck of some other vodka two shelves down.

The unknown vodka’s the same price, but I’ll get that cute bottle of ice wine for free! Off I go to the cash register feeling like I’ve pulled a fast one on the LCBO.

Reality sets in at home, when I open the fridge and add the mini bottle to the collection of mini bottles I’ve acquired over the years. Freebies I didn’t really want, for brands I can’t remember. What does ice wine have to do with vodka anyway? Should I be mixing them? Is it supposed to be a liquid appetizer or something? I can’t figure it out.

More companies need to ask themselves whether their promotion is really helping to build their brand or if it’s just the easy, cheap, expected thing to do. It must be alluring for those brand managers out there when a company says, ‘Hey, I have 500 flats of motor oil, why don’t you give a litre away with every subscription of Martha Stewart Wedding.’ You scratch my marketing plan, and I’ll scratch yours.

In the end, purchasers are left with a short-lived perk, but nothing that truly helps them connect to the brand. They might try it once because they got the free gizmo. But if it’s not relevant, if it’s not enhancing the product experience somehow, people will go right back to buying what they were buying in the first place as soon as the gizmo’s gone.

Then there are just plain bad ideas. Here’s one of the worst examples I’ve heard of. A financial services company sent a female colleague of mine a birthday card with an incentive intended to predispose her to invest with them. It did just the opposite.

What they sent was a compact mirror with their logo on it, which struck out on two counts. First, the underlying (even if unintended) message is: ‘You’re a girl, and we’re going to treat you that way.’ Second, since it was linked to a birthday, it seemed to suggest: ‘Take a look in the mirror – you’re not getting any younger.’ An irrelevant gift, that also happens to insult and stereotype the target, is obviously not very smart thinking.

Of course there are good ones too, and they don’t need to be complicated. Who doesn’t have $43 worth of Canadian Tire money in the glove compartment of their car? And who doesn’t feel like a little kid who just got this week’s allowance when the cashier gives you your stash? Canadian Tire understands that everyone likes a reward, and has turned this universal human truth into one of this country’s longest-standing and best-loved incentives.

Simple is good, but originality goes a long way too, particularly if the idea excels at tapping into a consumer insight or product benefit.

Like this: One company that manufactures bulletproof vests sent personalized packages to police officers. The packages contained a bullet. The personalization? Each bullet was engraved with the recipient’s name. The officers were then invited to bring the bullet to the company’s trade show and shoot it at one of the vests. Dramatic. Involving. Smart. Any incentive that can combine a demonstration of customer need and product performance is more than a gimmick, it’s a powerful part of a marketing plan.

Whatever you decide to do, don’t let incentives be an add-on. The more relevant they are, the more they enhance the overall brand, the better they’ll work in the long run. And the less chance they’ll wind up forgotten on the bottom shelf of my fridge.

Lance Martin is senior art director with Toronto-based Taxi (he did the illustrations). He can be reached at martin@taxi.ca.