Tied up in knots

Running a promotional campaign is a high-risk strategy for brand owners – as both Nestlé and the Government are discovering. A product’s reputation can be left in tatters, and any lift in sales figures is often short lived. Companies should ask the experts, suggests David Benady

Getting involved with Channel 4’s Big Brother show is a risky business. Equally perilous can be running unusual and creative sales promotion schemes to bolster the short-term turnover of leading brands. When you put the two together, the sparks are bound to fly, as Nestlé discovered last week.

The confectionery giant’s tie-in with Big Brother Seven through its Kit Kat golden tickets promotion highlights the hazards of getting mixed up with a programme that prides itself on hoaxing contestants and manipulating viewers. The two-week promotion, which ran between May 19 and June 2, offered anyone finding one of the 100 golden tickets – secreted in Kit Kat four-finger and Kit Kat Chunky wrappers – entry into a draw to win a place in the Big Brother house and appear on the show. Alternatively, they could pass on or sell the ticket to someone else.

Many viewers have claimed that the selection on June 9 of Golden Housemate winner Susie Verrico was a “fix”. The Sun newspaper – and even some Big Brother fans in the sales promotion industry – believe that Channel 4 manipulated the selection process to ensure the winner was Susie, seen as an ideal candidate to instill stability into a Big Brother house where relationships look likely to implode. A number of circumstances raised suspicions of a fix, not least that the housemates recognised the cosmetically enhanced contestant from auditions and that she had previously auditioned for three other series.

ASA turns eye on campaign

Two complaints about the golden ticket promotion have been sent to media regulator Ofcom, which has passed them on to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) because it was advertised through a television, press and poster campaign. The ASA has received five complaints in total and is considering whether to investigate the claims of a fix. Channel 4 denies the allegation, though Nestlé says that it had “no direct involvement in the final selection of the Golden Housemate”.

A number of observers believe it is inconceivable that Nestlé would have got involved with a fixed result. To be discovered doing so would hit Kit Kat’s brand image and leave it open to legal action. Even so, the coincidences seem highly serendipitous for Big Brother.

Some think that Nestlé is so keen to add a little bit of excitement to the ubiquitous but mundane chocolate brand that it jumped at the chance of being associated with a show that was avidly watched by young audiences and famed for being risqué. One observer believes the deal was struck at the last moment, given that the promotion was not featured on Kit Kat packaging.

A sales promotion insider says/ “It has all fitted too neatly into place and that is the joke. Legally, Kit Kat only said finding a ticket was a chance to go into the house.” The promotion’s terms and conditions state that a claimant will be selected “in a manner to be determined by Big Brother at its discretion”.

Consult the professionals

The deal between Big Brother producer Endemol and Nestlé was struck without the involvement of a specialist sales promotion agency. A Channel 4 spokeswoman says this was because the idea had to be kept secret, which would have been difficult with an agency involved. The deal was tied up about two months before the promotion began, she adds. She thinks it only natural that someone very keen to appear on Big Brother should end up getting hold of a ticket, and says that Susie bought her Golden Housemate ticket on Ebay.

The absence of a professional sales promotion agency in running the scheme echoes one of the great sales promotion disasters of all time, the Hoover free-flights fiasco. The vacuum cleaner brand promised purchasers free air travel, but was unable to meet demand and was consequently crippled by liabilities.

The brand was eventually sold off as a result. The sales promotion industry pointed out that Hoover had attempted to run the promotion in house and thus failed to have it vetted by a professional eye. The same could be said of the Kit Kat promotion.

The controversy surrounding Kit Kat’s Golden Housemate tickets underlines the view that sales promotions can be risky. They are often criticised for providing a short-term sales uplift at the expense of damaging a brand in the longer term. It should be mentioned that Kit Kat’s “biggest break” sales promotion was axed in 2004 after failing to make an impact. A cut-price promotion can leave a brand looking cheap and devalued, while promotional tie-ins with other brands can be seen as a sign of a lack of confidence.

Sales promotions can backfire or simply fail to produce the required returns, which may explain why their share of last year’s £44bn marketing spend fell to 12% – almost £6bn – from 14% the year before, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.

All about teamwork

According to Nick Tappin, a spokesman for Dialogue, promotions are getting fewer but bolder. “Budgets are being pulled together to create overall communications budgets. We work with Unilever, which issues a communication objective to an integrated team. As a team we come up with a plan to deliver against the objective.”

At the same time, Mike Halstead, managing director of sales promotions agency HH&S, says he can’t believe the Golden Housemate ticket was rigged. In general terms, he adds: “Promotions have got bigger in the way they are publicised and this has an impact on the brand, which naturally can find itself exposed to a greater level of danger.”

Nestlé claims the promotion has been highly successful, though supermarket buyers say they were given little warning by the company’s sales team. They see it as somewhat pointless since sales sank back after the promotion finished.

It also emerged last week that the Government’s own “sales” promotion mechanism to encourage young people to attend school will be axed after poor results. The Connexions Card, unveiled in 1999, offers loyalty points to students attending classes, to be redeemed against discount offers on brands such as Blockbuster, TopMan/TopShop, 3 and National Express.

Even though 600,000 cards are held by teenagers, redemption has been minimal and the scheme will cost taxpayers over £100m. Services company Capita ran the scheme, and is reported as saying it expects to receive compensation. It has received £66m for the first five years of the project and is in negotiations with the Department for Education and Skills.

Sales promotion schemes such as Connexions Card seemed flawed from the outset. In the case of Kit Kat, even if it is absolved of guilt in the case of the Golden Housemate ticket promotion, the association with a mischievous programme such as Big Brother may give it an edge with young audiences that it otherwise lacks.

However, if the ASA investigates and finds any wrongdoing, the brand could find itself turning off the same youth audiences it is trying to reach.

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