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Tim Hortons has had a series of disastrous marketing decisions.Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy, and director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, at Dalhousie University.

After a disastrous campaign last year, Tim Hortons finally got the message and opted to make changes to its 35-year-old Roll Up The Rim campaign. The iconic contest is now much shorter and incredibly more complicated. After its same-store sales dropped by more than 4 per cent in the latest quarter, Tim Hortons desperately needs to make its campaign work. But the famous chain may have again missed the mark.

From its protein play with Beyond Meat, to its tweet to Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, offering free coffee, to its costly ill-designed new lids, Tim Hortons has had a series of disastrous marketing decisions. Its latest Roll Up The Rim move can be added to the list. The campaign is confusing and will likely end up becoming a new source of frustration for customers.

The four-week campaign runs from March 11 to April 7 and has two phases. Tim Hortons intends to give away 1.8 million free reusable cups on the eve of the campaign, March 10, before the contest gets under way. Beginning on March 11, customers who buy a beverage will get to roll up their rims for the first two weeks. Customers with a loyalty card will get an extra roll online. For the last two weeks, the only opportunity to win will be online through digital play.

Tim Hortons has also eliminated the defeating “Please Play again” by giving every cup a chance to win $100,000, but only if you have the Tim Hortons app. Odds to win are a little lower than usual, but you don’t really lose until the end of the campaign when the draws occur. The total estimated retail value of all digital and cup prizes this year is $29.9-million over the four weeks, compared with the $71.3-million worth of prizes last year during the 10-week campaign. So, if you don’t win right away, you need to verify results and see if you won the draw. Confusing enough?

Tim Hortons clearly wants to check all the boxes without committing to anything. When designing promotions such as this, simplicity and relevancy to the brand are all-important. With this new approach, Roll Up The Rim 2020 does neither.

By going hybrid, Tim Hortons remains in the world of the in-betweens. In today’s market and context, the environment is non-negotiable for a greater number of consumers, especially for the younger generations. Millennials and Gen-Zers combined represent almost half of the Canadian population and many of them are distancing themselves from Tims for a cup of coffee or tea. For Tims to continue its market dominance, it needs them. This latest campaign likely will not persuade them to visit Tims more often. For them, sustainability is not about ticking boxes but about values and committing to conducting business in a more sustainable fashion.

Tim Hortons to give away roughly two-million reusable cups as part of Roll Up the Rim revamp [For subscribers]

The physical nature of the campaign, rims and cups and all, has not allowed Roll Up The Rim to age well. As the promotion is typically run in the middle of winter, all of the used Tim Hortons’ cups appear all over the place as the snow melts. Every year, we are reminded of the actual cost of the promotion to the environment. What has changed over the years is how consumers are connecting the brand with cups littering the environment. Irresponsible consumers can be blamed, but more people are now expecting companies to reduce environmental risks while designing promotions.

One significant change is the length of time the campaign will last. This year’s campaign will last four weeks as opposed to the previous 10 weeks. This may indicate that Tim Hortons is seeing 2020 as a transition year, testing the market with how it will react to its new approach. As the changes are already at least five years too late, one must wonder if Tim Hortons has any time to experiment. Digitizing the campaign, at least partly, was long overdue.

Tim Hortons is attempting to please an aging customer base while flirting with younger generations, but it falls short. Its attempt to clap with one hand fails to point to its core value, which is about community. That’s what’s unique at Tim Hortons. Over the years, communities have changed and are expecting something different. Tim Hortons, on the other hand, is still struggling with change when it comes to marketing promotions.

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