The 24 hours that changed Tims’ Roll Up the Rim

RBI's Duncan Fulton explains how the QSR tweaked its biggest promotion in response to COVID-19.


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Tim Hortons first began considering a last-minute change to its annual Roll Up the Rim contest two weeks ago at a Restaurants Canada board meeting.

The national association’s representatives from Starbucks, McDonald’s, Yum! Brands, Recipe Unlimited and Pizza Pizza were also among the industry leaders discussing what their response would be to the spread of COVID-19, the virus that has swept across much of the globe, including Canada, sending the business world into a tailspin.

“There’s tons of competition in this industry, as there should be,” Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer for Tims parent company Restaurant Brands International (who was present at the meeting) tells strategy. “There’s also certain moments where the industry looks to each other to say, ‘This is not a competitive moment; this is an industry moment to do the right thing.’”

Duncan FultonBut of the companies present at the meeting, the stakes were arguably even higher for Tims, which in two weeks’ time would launch one of its biggest promotions of the year – one that, as Fulton points out, has historically relied on having customers hand over cup tabs that have come in contact with their mouths. With 81 million Roll Up cups scheduled to enter circulation this year, and a roughly one-in-nine chance to win, the chain was bracing to see roughly nine million winning cups return to its restaurants during the contest period.

“If you worked at Tim Hortons or if your kids worked at Tim Hortons, you would want to know that Tim Hortons is a company that’s going to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult,” says Fulton.

On Friday, Tim Hortons joined Starbucks and Second Cup in announcing temporary measures in response to COVID-19: it would no longer distribute 1.8 million reusable cups ahead of Roll Up’s official launch. Less than 24 hours later, the company announced it would pull the paper cups portion of the contest (which it originally planned to distribute during the first two weeks) and would give away those prizes through a randomized cash-register draw. It also decided to stop fulfilling beverage orders in reusable cups.

While it was clear come Friday morning that modifying Roll the Up the Rim was necessary given the “current health environment,” Fulton says Tims knew there would be “unintended consequences,” adding that it had limited time to decide how to proceed.

It considered delaying the start date, but decided that would be “just one more change and one more complexity we can avoid,” Fulton says. It considered printing coupons to replace the outgoing paper cups. “Turns out it’s very difficult to print 80 million coupons and distribute them to 4,000 locations in four days.”

Any changes to the rules would require repurposing millions of dollars worth of marketing assets on the fly. Tims would also need to grapple with collecting and responsibly recycling 81 million cups – a clear communications challenge, given that it’s goal was to bring an environmental focus (by issuing reusable cups) to this year’s Roll Up the Rim contest in response to customer feedback.

Come Friday evening, Tims’ tech team had devised a solution that involved distributing $14 million dollars worth of free beverages through a randomized draw at the cash register (another $16 million in prizes, including cars, televisions and gift cards, will be given away through its app). “When we found the tech solution, we made the decision on the Friday after several hours of discussion,” says Fulton. “We spent overnight Friday and Saturday morning executing, and we announced it Saturday at noon.”

He concedes that making back-to-back announcements late in the week, each of which has earned significant media coverage, may make it more difficult for customers to understand what has changed about the contest, and why. “Anybody who’s ever been in marketing or communications has been trained to package your messages. But sometimes in an evolving situation, like the current public health environment, you just don’t have that luxury,” he says. “You need to make a series of decisions that are consistent and make sense.”

Still, Fulton remains optimistic that this year’s promotion will be a success. For the last 35 years, Tims didn’t have a clear view into who was winning what prizes on any given day, he says. But starting tomorrow, it will know exactly how many prizes have been awarded at the end of each day – information it plans to leverage in its daily marketing. Meanwhile, the marketing team has been pulling and replacing assets for the campaign ahead of tomorrow’s official launch. “It’s certainly more quick to get on radio and digital than it is to traffic new television. So we’ve been leaning into radio and digital to get that message out.”

Beyond Roll Up, Fulton says it’s more-or-less “business as usual” for Tims during this time. “We still have our marketing plan for the rest of the year, that hasn’t been altered. We still have the model promotions that we would run. This was a case of a large campaign that was due [to launch] that we decided to make an adjustment to.”