Barq’s Root Beer, Elvis, and Russian Knickknacks

Barq’s root beer is a regional soft drink brand that was founded in New Orleans. Nearly a hundred years after its founding, Barq’s remained a smallshare brand with a limited advertising and promotion budget. In the early 1990s, Barq’s decided to promote the brand in commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Barq’s vice president of marketing thought up a great premium idea that would involve purchasing an old Cadillac that Elvis had owned, cutting it into thousands of small pieces, and offering each piece to a different consumer as part of a mail-in premium requiring multiple proofs of purchase of Barq’s root beer. There was only one problem with this premium idea: The administrators of the Presley estate demanded a $1 million licensing fee, which exceeded tenfold Barq’s budget for the promotion.
Unable to afford this, Barq’s marketing vice president scrambled to find a replacement. Just about this time, the Soviet government collapsed. Seeing the news on TV, the vice president hit immediately on the idea of a replacement for the failed Elvis promotion: “The Soviet Union Going Out of Business Sale.” Mind you, this had all taken place within a month or less—decision making on the run, so to speak. With a meager $70,000 in his possession, Rick Hill, Barq’s marketing vice president, boarded a plane to Russia to purchase ex– Soviet Union memorabilia. Unable to find legitimate businesspeople from whom to purchase ex-Soviet items, Hill turned to members of the Soviet Mafia. Within two weeks he spent the $70,000 acquiring 4,000 pounds of ex-Soviet stuff (Russian nesting dolls, Lenin Day pins, military medals, etc.) that was shipped back to the United States.
Barq’s offered one randomly chosen Soviet knickknack with a 12-pack proof of purchase and 50 cents postage and handling charge. This last-minute, desperate promotion achieved incredible results: 5 percent of all consumers eligible for the promotion actually took advantage of it, and sales increased 30 percent versus the comparable period the previous year. This mail-in premium promotion also received the industry’s top promotion award for the year. The moral of the story: A creative promotion that is of high topical interest and captures the public’s imagination can be extremely successful.

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