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American flag, photo from stock.xchng taken by Horton Group

Veterans Day is November 11.

In honor of Veterans Day this Wednesday, many restaurant chains are offering free food items to veterans and active duty personnel. In a recent USA Today article, Bruce Horovitz linked these holiday promotions to the past year’s decline in restaurant sales and a corresponding PR initiative.

Beyond simply showing appreciation for the vets’ service, the actions are about boosting brand image and business in one of the casual-dining industry’s worst-ever periods.

Since USA Today tied these promotions back to restaurants wanting to increase sales by improving their images, I decided to explore various Veterans Day restaurant offers and the PR efforts (if any) used to share them with the public.

Golden Corral

Golden Corral is holding its 9th annual Military Appreciation dinner on Monday, November 16 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Anyone who has ever served in the U.S. military will receive a free dinner that night. The event is being held the week after Veterans Day so it avoids conflicting with holiday activities.

Golden Corral has created a Web page with details and frequently asked questions about the event, as well as three PSA videos promoting the event starring Gary Sinise, Bo Derek and Collective Soul.

Krispy Kreme

Krispy Kreme is giving out free doughnuts to veterans and active military personnel on Veterans Day. The company issued a press release last Thursday to announce this promotion.

Outback Steakhouse

Outback Steakhouse is giving documented veterans and active military a free “Bloomin’ Onion” (aka: crazy fried goodness) and a beverage on Veterans Day. The chain has created a Web page and a video about this offer and is using its Facebook page to share both with its 110, 749 fans. Only 6 hours after Outback posted the video to its Facebook page, 565 people had “liked it” and 120 people had commented on it, which I find pretty impressive.

Applebee’s

Applebee’s is offering veterans and active duty military a free entrée from a list of six favorites on November 11. This is the first year for the promotion and Applebee’s has creatively used several media tools to help launch it. Applebee’s has devoted a special Web page to its Veterans Day promotions that lists the menu items vets can choose from and the type of military documentation needed to receive the offer.

The site also has links to social media portals like Twitter and Facebook that patrons can use to help spread the word about the promotion. Applebee’s also aired a TV commercial that is featured on its Veterans Day Web page and its ApplebeesVets YouTube channel.

One of the comments in response to Applebee’s commercial on YouTube is from monkeeanna and represents the many positive reactions veteran-honoring restaurants are receiving from customers.

Thank you so much Applebees.. my dad served 21 years in the airforce and am so proud of him. Thank you for putting your hand out and shaking the hand of those who keep this country FREE!

You earned so much respect in my book!!!

Other promotions

According to coupondivas.com, Ponderosa and Abuelo’s are also offering free meals to veterans on November 11, but neither restaurant has done much to announce it, as far as I can tell. There is no mention of promotions on either Web site, nor any found press releases. Consequently, both restaurants were excluded from USA Today’s list.

This is first-hand proof that time spent promoting offers and events leads to media coverage. Golden Corral, Krispy Kreme, Outback Steakhouse and Applebee’s all created press releases, Web pages and/or videos announcing their Veterans Day promotions and all earned mentions in USA Today, in addition to other articles and posts.

Thank you, veterans! Enjoy your free crazy fried goodness.

Delicious-looking tomatoes, photo from stock.xchng taken by Jarsem

Hunt's wants to be considered when your tomatoes stop looking this fresh.

While watching Alton Brown make amazing-looking beer cheese bread on “Good Eats” last week, I saw a commercial for Hunt’s tomatoes featuring other Food Network personality George Duran. It caught my eye because not only was it promoting Hunt’s products in a somewhat amusing way, it was also promoting an integrated marketing campaign.

The idea

Similar to the campaign featured in my potato post, Hunt’s is also trying to show consumers the more versatile side of a vegetable (fruit?). Just in time for fall and winter weather, Hunt’s is positioning its “FlashSteamed” canned tomatoes as the perfect substitute for garden-fresh ones. To emphasize this, Hunt’s has hired a celebrity spokesperson, created recipes using the product and sponsored a contest. All align with its Crash Kitchen Tour campaign.

The spokesperson

Chef George Duran, who has hosted several shows on the Food Network and written a cookbook, is now using his sense of humor, expertise and quirky take on food to promote Hunt’s tomatoes. In addition to starring in the commercial, Duran also created recipes using Hunt’s products that are featured on both the brand’s Web site and in a YouTube video hosted by the chef. Duran was also a key component to the contest discussed below and he regularly uses his Twitter account to tweet about his work for Hunt’s. Basically, there would be no campaign without Duran.

The contest

October 6 was the deadline to enter to become one of 1,000 Hunt’s-sponsored party hosts. Hunt’s asked winners to host a “Backyard Garden Fresh Party” in their own homes on October 24 and share their experiences on a site called House Party. Two party hosts won the grand prize of having George Duran “crash” their parties. He helped them cook one of his recipes featuring Hunt’s tomato products.

Hunt’s sent “party packs” with coupons, a Hunt’s logo apron, recipes and party ideas to all 1,000 hosts. House Party allowed hosts from all over the country to post pictures, comments and videos from their parties to one page. The idea was for consumers to throw a garden-inspired party in any type of weather. This ties back to the brand’s key message that canned tomatoes can be enjoyed any time of the year.

The effort

I think this campaign had some brilliant ideas. George Duran’s YouTube video and commercial draws attention to Hunt’s products. The contest got food-lovers thinking about Hunt’s and its key messages. The use of House Party was very creative and the page now serves as documentation of many happy Hunt’s consumers and their parties. The campaign even utilized other social media tools with Duran’s tweets and a Facebook page.

However, I’m not sure these ideas were promoted in the most effective ways. For instance, I was able to find exactly one press release on the campaign, and it was not on the Hunt’s site nor on the site of its parent company, ConAgra Foods. I may not have all the information, but it appears to me that promotion for this campaign was done at the last minute. Even the brand’s Facebook page seems like it was only created a month ago with the sole purpose of providing materials from the campaign.

Although I think the brand’s PR team could have done a better job promoting the campaign, I still think it is a pretty successful one. It does a great job of incorporating many different media elements while inspiring consumers to think creatively about their food.

The Louvre

The Louvre museum in Paris

I’ve never been to Paris, but when I think of the Louvre, I imagine soaking up culture while looking at the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo and now… the golden arches? At the beginning of this month, McDonald’s announced it is opening a restaurant in the Louvre. The news has since caused some controversy.

Online Discussion

Comments in reply to posts and articles began popping up both for and strongly against this decision. One reader, Morgan65, posted a comment to an article on NYDailyNews.com:

This must be a joke! With all the wonderful cafés inside the Louvre serving delicious, reasonably priced, and healthy fare, why would anyone want to eat the garbage McDonald’s produces?

Another reader, ElJodon, disagreed with anti-McDonald’s comments like Morgan65’s:

Oh please, get over it. It’s just commerce at work. It the French were not eating McDonald’s then a franchise would not be opening there just like the other 1,135 already in France. Everything in moderation. A burger once in a while is not the end of the world.

PR Perspective

An article about this story appeared on Fast Company‘s Web site, in which Kate Rockwood mentioned the opposition Starbucks met last year when it opened a store outside the Louvre. There was even a petition. This makes me curious to see what will happen between now and the day McDonald’s opens in the museum next month.

The story has already caused many people to speak out against the fast food giant, and I have to think McDonald’s could have handled the situation better from a PR perspective. As far as I can tell, company representatives have not been speaking out a lot about their decision to move into the Louvre. Though journalists, bloggers and other commentators have brought up points in defense of McDonald’s, I can’t even find as much as a company-issued press release on the topic.

Desserts at a McDonald's in Paris. Photo by Larry Mendel.

The dessert display at a McDonald's already in Paris. Yes, that is cheesecake.

I’m not sure if McDonald’s is monitoring what consumers are saying about it, or if it’s just such a large corporation that it doesn’t even bother; but if I were working for its PR team, I would want to get involved in the conversation. I’ve found in researching this story that many of the people opposed to the McDonald’s in the Louvre are not French, but American.

I think the McDonald’s image would improve if its representatives articulated some of the differences between French and American McDonald’s stores. Though the McDonald’s franchises in France don’t exactly serve gourmet cuisine, they tend to be a bit classier than the ones in the U.S. Perhaps consumers would find McDonald’s more fitting for the Louvre if they were made aware? 

…OK, so maybe telling Americans they are missing out on the fancy French McDonald’s cheesecake isn’t the best way to change the minds of people against the Louvre location, but I do think McDonald’s should be doing something.

Paula Deen at her kids' cooking demo during last year's festival

Food Network star Paula Deen engaged kids during a cooking demo at last year's festival.

Even in today’s economy, people will pay large sums of money when promised great food and celebrity sightings. This was proven this past weekend at the second annual Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival. The festival featured more than 100 events over four days. Events ranged from cooking demonstrations and wine tastings to book signings and live interviews with celebrity chefs like Paula Deen and Giada De Laurentiis.

Giving Back

Though tickets for each event spanned from $10 to $500, ticket buyers had a reason to feel good about spending the money. All net proceeds from the festival went to the Food Bank for New York City and Share Our Strength, which help feed underprivileged New Yorkers and American children, respectively.

Social Media

The NYC Wine & Food Festival promoters used social media tools to their advantage in the execution of this year’s festival. Here are some of the ways they did this:

  • Facebook users can become fans of the festival on its Facebook page, which posted news and updates leading up to this year’s event.
  • Festival Founder and Director Lee Schrager uses his own Twitter account to update followers on both this festival and its sister event, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Schrager tweeted live from New York throughout the festival weekend, as did the Food Bank for New York City and celebrities like Katie Lee Joel and Bobby Flay.
  • All weekend, people could follow the festival in real time using Twitter’s hashtag feature (by searching #nycwff).
  • On Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., “prominent NYC food bloggers” were invited to New York hotel The Standard (A.K.A. festival headquarters) to interview chefs.
The 2009 NYC Wine & Food Festival took place October 8-11.

The 2009 NYC Wine & Food Festival took place October 8-11.

Journalists Welcome

Festival organizers put a lot of effort into attracting media coverage of the event. They began distributing press releases six months prior to the festival, updating journalists at each point of development. In order to attend the event, accredited media members had to register and request press tickets. By issuing tickets and controlling which media outlets covered various events, the festival committee made it easier to monitor press coverage of the event.

Wise Promotion

Events are always great opportunities to promote an organization, and the NYC Wine & Food Festival was able to draw positive attention to more than just the Food Network. Because the event was successful, credible and philanthropic, its sponsors (Food & Wine and Travel + Leisure magazines), the organizations it benefited and participating celebrities all had something to gain from a PR perspective.

In addition to sending out press releases and allowing journalists to cover the event, the festival organizers were conscious of the impact social media has on the public. The festival utilized tools like Facebook, Twitter and blogs to gain free publicity and make the event an interactive experience.

I have the very ambitious goal of attending the NYC Wine & Food Festival next year (time and income permitting). But no matter if I’m following the festivities from home or tweeting live from the event, I can’t wait to see what new promotional tactics the festival’s organizers come up with for 2010.

A refreshing glass of coffee from stock.xchng, taken by Sergio López

Starbucks wants you to know you can now enjoy your favorite coffee in an instant.

When it comes to promotion, there’s no denying that Starbucks has got it together. Though it doesn’t need to remind consumers of its existence (caffeine cravings take care of this on their own), Starbucks continues to dominate the coffee shop industry by coming up with new ways to impress the public. From educating customers about its global responsibility program, to constantly monitoring its online image on Twitter, Starbucks is paying attention to how it is seen in the public eye.

From the PR perspective, I think the way Starbucks uses Twitter is one of the best examples of how businesses can benefit from social media. I love how Starbucks responds to people’s tweets (both positive and negative) regarding the company. Starbucks has its own “Twitter Master” Brad Nelson, who updates followers on company news, answers customer questions and even apologizes when people complain about slow service!

But the latest PR move Starbucks has made that impressed me is its promotion of Starbucks VIA instant coffee, which hit stores last week.

Road Trip

On September 29, the aforementioned Brad arrived in New York, the last stop on a two-week road trip with stand-up comedian Erin Foley. The pair traveled from Seattle (Starbucks headquarters) to New York in a SUV promoting the new instant coffee, stopping in each state to hand out samples. Starbucks filmed the road trip and invited customers to follow Brad and Erin’s journey in eight documentary-style webisodes posted on YouTube.

Taste Test

Today is the last day of the Starbucks VIA Taste Challenge, which took place in Starbucks stores across the country over the weekend. Baristas challenged participants to taste (for free!) both the new VIA instant coffee and the classic Pike Place Roast brewed coffee, then  try to guess which one was instant. Participants also received coupons for both products.

Interactive Contest

Until November 10, coffee lovers can submit a video, picture or essay to Starbucks that shows or explains how they used Starbucks VIA in the five different ways or places listed on the product site. They include:

Winners are chosen each week for six weeks (today is the last day to submit for the first week) and can win prizes like an iPod touch.

Starbucks VIA comes in packages of three and 12.

Comes in packages of three and 12. Available in Italian Roast and Colombia.

Smart Strategy

I am impressed with the lengths (literally a length of 4,000 miles for Brad and Erin) Starbucks has gone to promote this new product. It has reached out to consumers online through the webisodes and product-mentioning tweets, it has directly approached customers with the taste challenge and it has asked VIA fans to talk about how they use the product with the online contest. 

All of these methods are innovative ways of promoting a new product. With the announcement of each element, Starbucks’s PR team wrote a fact sheet or news release, further increasing the chance of gaining media coverage on its new product. I think that if the company continues to promote itself creatively, it will be around to keep people happily caffeinated for a very long time.

How can anyone resist a beautiful potato?

How can anyone resist a beautiful potato?

When I saw that the U.S. Potato Board (USPB) had launched a campaign trying to reposition the potato to consumers, I was shocked. When you think of vegetables with the worst reputations, it’s always “yucky” produce like broccoli or brussels sprouts or beets— never potatoes!

Potatoes are warm, fluffy, soft, delicious and buttery. Oh. I suppose that buttery taste comes from all the butter I put on them, which maybe isn’t the healthiest thing to add to a vegetable side dish (especially when I also add sour cream, a ton of salt and possibly cheese or bacon bits).

Once I really started evaluating the potato, I came up with all the flaws I was letting slip due to my blind love. In addition to usually being fried or teamed up with high-fat ingredients, potatoes aren’t the fastest-cooking item in the pantry either. The USPB was able to identify these imperfections and come up with a creative way to present the potato in a healthier and more convenient light.

The campaign

On September 10, the USPB unveiled its plan to showcase the potato as healthy, affordable and inexpensive. The USPB revamped the top six Internet-searched-for potato recipes using low-fat ingredients like skim milk and light yogurt in place of items like whole milk and sour cream. They are:

For each recipe, there are ideas of how to change up the dish, like adding corn and ham to potato soup to create a chowder. The recipes also feature shortcuts like microwave cooking to speed up the dinner-making process for busy families.

In addition to giving consumers faster and more interesting ways of enjoying potatoes, the USPB is working on repositioning the potato as America’s go-to food in this economy. When you go to the USPB’s Potato Goodness campaign site, you are greeted by Robyn Flipse, registered dietician. In her 30-second video, she explains that a medium-sized potato is just 25 cents on average and contains more potassium than a banana. Did you know that?

A nod to the Food Network

In addition to providing written recipes including the cook time, cost-per-serving and nutritional value of each dish, the USPB has created educational videos featuring tips, techniques and demonstrations. The videos star Potato Expert Patty Mastracco, (how cool is her official title, by the way?), who shows viewers how she creates the featured recipes with ease.

While she shows off her potato-preparing skills, the recipe pops up on the screen beside her so the viewer can see the ingredient amounts she uses. Though the videos aren’t quite Food Network quality, I think this was a good way to draw in consumers who love to see how someone else makes a dish before attempting it in their own kitchens.

A twice-baked idea?

I think the USPB came up with some really great ideas while developing this campaign. It acknowledges its target audience’s needs (fast, affordable, low-fat meals) and takes creative measures in presenting itself as the solution.

With the aid of the USPB’s new recipes, the potato’s image will be squeaky-clean once more. Now if only the same thing could be said for the brussels sprout…