How to Create a Successful Limited-Time Offer

A Do's (and One Don't) Guide for Marketers to Short-Lived Promos

By Published on .

For more than 30 years, there has been a much anticipated product on the McDonald's menu: The McRib. This grandfather of limited-time offers has been offered sporadically around the country on a local or regional basis. McRib lovers are such a rabid bunch that they created a website to help one another find the sandwich in McDonald's locations.

So what's the secret to McRib's cult following? Part of it is the anticipation. No matter what kind of business a marketer is in, a limited-time offer can help generate interest and bring customers through the door. "Limited-time offers help the goal of always having news -- it keeps a brand in the forefront of the consumers' minds," said Mary Chapman, director-product innovation at research firm Technomic.

Any retailer or company with a product or service to sell can benefit from fast-food's favorite marketing gimmick. Here are five key lessons for marketers looking to generate some buzz.

Create urgency
There's a reason why the terms "act now" and "while supplies last" have been over-used even though they are marketing cliches. "If you can't get it all the time, it raises the value of the product" and creates a call to action, said Ms. Chapman. Seasonality is a great option for creating demand, such as Edy's pumpkin pie ice cream during the fall or Mallomars during the summer.

Use limited-time offers to draw in a new type of customer
Wendy's has been using premium limited-time products in order to appeal to customers who would maybe otherwise frequent a sit-down restaurant or a fast-casual burger place. Take for example its back-for-a-second round limited-time pretzel bun, introduced last year for its pricier bacon cheeseburger and chicken sandwich. The move, said Ms. Chapman, lured in customers that were not among the chain's frequent visitors.

Limited-time doesn't have to be just a product
Auto marketers know this better than anyone. They're frequently advertising 0% APR on new cars, or discounts on trade-ins. Retailers have their back-to-school sales and President's Day sales. J.C. Penney learned the hard way that a constant discount doesn't generate near as much excitement as a buy-before-it's-over sale. Limited time can also apply to packaging rather than product (see Coke and Miller below). Marketers should remember they don't necessarily need to have a new product to offer limited-time discounts.

Make it unique
There are ways to botch a limited-time offer. Coca-Cola in 2011 unveiled a limited-edition white Coke can for the holidays. The cans hit shelves Nov. 1 of that year, but by Dec. 1, the company said it was pulling back the cans, despite the fact that it was "the most important holiday program we've ever launched." Turns out the cans were much too similar to Diet Coke's design, and consumers were confused. The lesson: Make sure your offer is distinct.

Limited-time can be a testing ground
If a limited-time over is a great success, consider making it a permanent item. MillerCoors late last year rolled out a limited-time vintage 1970s Miller Lite logo design for its cans. While the marketer hasn't confirmed yet that the logo design will be a permanent fixture, Miller is hinting that may well be the case. The can was so successful that the brewer made it the cornerstone of its 2014 marketing plans.

Most Popular