When H.J. Heinz started his business as a traveling salesman 130 years ago, he published a guide for his friends every Christmas, recommending his favorite places to stay while on the road.
So Mr. Heinz would likely be very happy that the recommendation economy is alive and well: In the U.K. this week, Heinz launched a balsamic-vinegar-ketchup variant by selling the first 3,000 bottles exclusively on Facebook to people who were prepared to "like" the product and recommend it to their friends.
There are precisely 1,057,000 bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup with Balsamic Vinegar, which Heinz said is its first limited-edition product. Heinz sent out 57 free bottles to food bloggers and VIPs and for use in a sampling breakfast, and the remaining bottles will be available in supermarkets starting March 23.
Neil Kleiner, head of social media at Havas' Media Contacts, part of MPG, said, "This is a great PR stunt. It's unexpected for Heinz -- which is not the first brand you think of in terms of social media -- so it has created a lot of buzz. People go to Facebook to engage with friends; they are only interested in brands if there's something in it for them, like discounting, vouchers or exclusives."
Heinz Tomato Ketchup already had 45,000 U.K. Facebook fans thanks to a site set up by agency We Are Social in September. The number has risen to 54,000 since the page started selling the new ketchup at $2.40 a bottle, with free shipping. Facebook users can buy the bottles via credit card using an embedded payment system.
However, the brand's Facebook page is clogged up with people who have had difficulty ordering the product, and on day three of the promotion there are still a few bottles left.
"Heinz is very much aware of the evolving channels consumers use to buy and engage with brands," Heinz marketing manager Ian McCarthy said in a statement. "Social media is increasingly at the forefront of this consumer-consumption evolution, which is why we decided to use our U.K. Facebook page" to launch the product.
According to AC Nielsen, Heinz sells more than 76 million bottles of ketchup each year in the U.K., and around 650 million bottles and 11 billion individual packets across six continents.
Social commerce is becoming increasingly popular, and a number of big brands including Dove, French Connection and Best Buy are all selling through Facebook. Online fashion retailer Asos recently set up a full shop on Facebook, making its entire inventory available through the social-networking site.
Mr. Kleiner said not all brands are not well-suited to social commerce. "I couldn't imagine buying something like toothpaste through Facebook," he said. "Brands like Best Buy and Asos are ideal for social commerce because electronics and fashion are very influencer-led, and people look to buy things that their friends have recommended."