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The Critical Points: Companies Continue to Get Promos Horribly Wrong

Nov. 30, 2018
8 min read
Online promotions
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Giveaways, freebies, contests, bonuses, drawings; all of these incentives continue to hold great power in attracting attention to a brand. However, there's one thing that continues to perplex me in 2018: How do some of these promotions actually make it to customers before anyone at the company puts a hand up and says, "This is probably a bad idea" or "Do you understand just how popular this is going to be?" The end result is a frustrated public and negative publicity for the brand, an absolute backfire in the world of marketing.

This past Wednesday evening at 10:15 EST, I was on the checkout page of Google Fi to take advantage of the incredible promotion. Roughly five hours before the terms and conditions stated the promotion would be over — and with no language stating limited quantities available — I noticed the promo code for the free travel gift card was no longer listed and had been replaced by a $100 credit.

I flipped back to JT Genter's post from Wednesday on Twitter and saw he had responded with Google Fi ending the promo early:

On one hand, good for Google Fi and all the business they got yesterday with this lucrative promotion. On the other hand, the brand is trying to start a relationship with me and my first impression is now that Google Fi will not/does not have to follow any terms and conditions they publish. Of course this promotion was going to be incredibly popular; spend $1,000 and get $1,000 while saving me $100/month compared to AT&T? Sign me up. How did Google Fi not understand the potential popularity of this and include language to let us know that limited quantities were available?

This got me mentally recapping all the poorly planned or executed promotions from recent years, and it leaves me wondering how such large, powerful and typically capable brands can continue to get these promos wrong. Let's recap a few that stand out.

Wyndham to Quadruple SPG Point Total

In October 2016, for a 12-hour period only, if you donated your entire SPG points to charity, Wyndham would give you 4X your SPG donated balance and match your status. When I first heard about this offer, I believe I literally said "What are they thinking?" out loud.

Sure enough, the promo was live only for a few hours before Wyndham reneged and recognized a simple screen shot would defraud them of hundreds of thousands of Wyndham points per person that took part in the promotion. Wyndham has a particularly offensive track record on recognizing possible repercussions from poorly-executed offers and has even changed terms and conditions of promotions after launch. I don't do any Wyndham promos because I know the odds are low everything will go smoothly.

Iberia 90,000 Miles

We covered this one extensively on TPG and thankfully — even though it required a lot of heartache for some participants — Iberia honored the promo. The amazement here is how Iberia didn't understand (or consider) how popular such a promotion was going to be.

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JetBlue Matches Virgin America Point Balances

Back in 2016, when JetBlue lost out on its bid to acquire Virgin America, the carrier offered to match your Elevate balance. If you simply sent in a screen shot of your Virgin America account balance, JetBlue would match it (up to 75,000 points). When I see any type of promotion requiring a screenshot, I can't help but wonder if anyone at these airlines knows about Chrome Inspect mode. A simple right click and hundreds (if not thousands) of unscrupulous travelers were now 75,000 JetBlue points richer. Maybe JetBlue didn't care and was aware such fraud would be committed but knew it would generate buzz and get new customers over to their airline.

Chase Freedom Unlimited 3% Rewards

A card that earns 3X Chase Ultimate Rewards points on all spend (if you also have a Sapphire or Ink card) seems too good to be true, but that's the exact treasure trove that many folks approved for the card earlier this year are currently enjoying. As soon as this was launched, the collective points and miles community put it on a death watch. Sure enough, the offer was gone within a month. The card did not offer a sign-up bonus, so speculation was Chase testing the waters of a higher earning rewards card with no bonus. I speculate they didn't count on everyone signing up for the card also being a Sapphire and Ink cardholder and quickly recognized the cost of giving away 3 Ultimate Rewards for every dollar spent.

Here's a quick look at other poorly-conceived promotions:

  • Jetsmarter gives a free three-month membership to anyone with a screen shot (Chrome Inspect) of 1 million miles or top-tier elite status
  • Discover matches 10% cash back on Apple Pay purchases to 20% for first year cardholders
  • Uber Visa Local Offers 10% credit for Whole Foods and Staples
  • Anyone else mail hundreds of index cards to IHG in 2015?
  • Hyatt credit card offering lifetime Diamond (yes, they are now lifetime Globalist) to new applicants. Originally occurring in 2013 and then as a mistake which was not honored in 2017.
  • Unlimited 10% Target gift cards, which could be used to buy third party gift cards in store
  • MoviePass offering unlimited movies for $10/month
  • British Airways shopping portal offering 150 Avios/$ for membership

The list goes on and on.

Advice To Brands

If you're going to run a promotion in the loyalty program space in 2018 and beyond, I really believe you need an independent third party to look at what you're about to undertake. In my experience, hotels and airlines believe they have all the expertise needed in house. The problem occurs when subordinates are unwilling or unable to tell superiors their true opinions of bad ideas due to office politics or personality conflicts.

In addition, the expertise believed to be in the room may not actually be there. When there's a collective sigh or groan from the online points and miles community after a new promo is released, it should tell you something about the knowledge (or lack thereof) residing with the offending brand and its marketing folks. There's a very active, engaged and hidden side of the points and miles community which should be utilized to see how your promotion could go awry. You also need advice to gauge just how popular it may be so you can properly set expectations and understand any 'viral potential' of it.

Advice to Customers

It's become fairly clear over the last few years that when a brand doesn't want to honor a promotion gone wrong (or mistake fare/rate), there's a general lack of accountability. If you see a deal that seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you need to carefully undertake it in manners which minimize your risk or exposure if a company retroactively changes the terms or yanks the promotion entirely.

The second responsibility we have is not to engage or encourage fraud with these deals. There are plenty of people looking to gain an edge by playing promotions the wrong way. That's a recipe for disaster, and it's also completely unfair to those of us who play by the rules. Don't submit false screenshots while you're blinded by the thought of free travel. Follow the terms of a promotion. Period.

Bottom Line

A good promotion will attract new business to a brand and will simultaneously reward customers. When this happens, I love it. Status challenges are a great example of this, where I'm required to spend money with an airline and (in return) receive a shortcut to elite status. There's little than can be defrauded with a status challenge, and both parties win. The airline gets a new (potentially loyal) customer and incremental revenue that would've have been there without the status challenge, while the member enjoys a more comfortable and rewarding travel experience.

It's where a promotion is too lucrative that we run into issues. Of course, the answer in getting promotions right isn't to swing to the conservative end of the spectrum and launch a promotion so unattractive that it draws no additional business. Be creative in what you offer and get an independent expert to look at what you're about to do so we can avoid promos gone wrong in the future.