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persuasion notebook

Marketers' emotional pleas have become so frequent, you'd think that consumers' relentlessly tugged-on heartstrings would be a bit slack by now.

Nevertheless, Tim Hortons is hoping to win points with a new attempt at heartwarming goodwill. On Tuesday, the company released a video showing its employees surprising residents of Grimsby, Ont., with good deeds.

The event, which took place in mid-November, asked local customers to write down ideas "to spread good" during the holidays; then, accompanied by a film crew, a group decked out in red carried out some of those ideas. The surprises included a visit to a seniors' centre with therapy dogs, a donation of winter coats to the Grimsby Benevolent Fund, and Christmas decorations set up for a woman with a broken arm.

There's a reason so many companies have caught the sentimental bug: there is some evidence that these types of heartwarming campaigns can actually pay off. After Toronto-Dominion Bank surprised customers last year with a talking ATM – thanking them for their business with a variety of gifts – its research showed that 95 per cent of its customers said they would be likely to do more business with TD going forward.

And when WestJet surprised Christmas travelers with a Santa who brought their wish lists to life, it saw visits to its website double, and airline bookings during the campaign period shot up 77 per cent. Anything that can convince millions of people to sit through a 5-minute ad is bound to be emulated.

A bit of that halo effect is clearly what Tim Hortons is going for here.

The chain has had some success with less emotional marketing stunts, too. Last year, it introduced a new dark roast coffee to customers by surprising them with a "dark store," painted black with the lights off – where they could sample the coffee without seeing it. The company has attributed an extra $30-million in brewed coffee sales to the exposure from the campaign.

In addition to the video, locations across the country will be handing out $5 Tim Hortons gift cards, "while encouraging guests to pay it forward." The campaign is piggy-backing on "Giving Tuesday," which is itself a marketing campaign on behalf of the charitable sector, encouraging people to give philanthropic donations after the consumer frenzy of the Black Friday shopping weekend.