A few years ago, Bass Pro Shops (a chain of about 50 megastores devoted to outdoor life) tried something unusual on their in-store TV network. In addition to the ads, product promotions and lifestyle shots that made up their content loop, the retailer added a number of five- to eight-minute long clips about NASCAR that were all shot and produced in-house. As Bass Pro already had a significant interest in the franchise (they continue to sponsor a car to this day), they felt that promoting it inside of their stores made sense -- particularly since a good portion of their core shoppers fall into the right demographic categories for NASCAR. The notion of cross promotion certainly isn't new, but it is underutilized on digital signage networks. That's a shame, since remotely-managed screens are a great way to quickly and cheaply try out cross-promotional campaigns.
Why wouldn't you want to cross-promote?
I once saw a sushi bar located right next to a tropical fish store. Despite the fact that the two were (presumably) unrelated, I didn't go near the sushi bar. Similarly, I know a place where an animal shelter sits next to a run-down looking Chinese and Thai restaurant. I consider myself a somewhat adventurous eater, but there's no way I can bring myself to try it out. And that's the kind of thinking that can make cross promotional strategies so potentially valuable and dangerous at once. It's hard enough for marketers to know how shoppers feel about their brand, let alone somebody else's, so there can be lots of opportunities for the message to get lost, muddled or altogether altered.
What's more, many advertising-based networks are already finding it hard enough to sell space on their networks to bona fide advertisers -- you know, the ones selling products right in the store. The notion of spending some of those sales cycles chasing around other brands can be particularly tough for them to swallow. Even when the concept gets approved by management (the people in charge of the network and the people in charge of the venues, typically), there's still the task of identifying the most promising outside organizations to pitch. NASCAR may have been a natural fit for Bass Pro, but many retailers will have a harder time coming up with a list of non-competing, non-cannibalistic firms that will appeal to their core shoppers.
Understanding the upside of cross-promotion
Just the other day, I came across an article about some very strange bedfellows, 7-Eleven and J.C. Penney, who are working on cross-promotion experiments. Shopper Culture describes a campaign that the companies ran after Thanksgiving: "J.C. Penney handed out coupons for a free cup of coffee at 7-Eleven stores. Likewise, 7-Eleven stores featured displays at the checkout stands with a tear pad coupon good for $10 off at J.C. Penney stores." The two firms obviously don't compete with each other, and given the different nature, format and purpose of the chains, there's little opportunity for confusion. (Well, except for the initial "Huh? Why are you sending me to J.C. Penney when I just want to top off my tank and get a bag of Doritos?") However, the two stores probably felt that it was possible to drive more traffic to each other via a direct route (in this case, the promise of discounts or free stuff). If nobody redeemed their offers, they didn't lose anything (aside from promotion costs). There would be some small portion of customers that already frequented both chains and essentially got a good deal. And new traffic to the stores was gravy.
Co-marketing also allows retailers or brands to share costs with each other, so while the reward might be more uncertain, the risk is lower too. In today's tough times, cash is king. Retailers certainly seem to be willing to try nontraditional approaches to bring in more traffic, especially if it means spending less cash upfront than they might have otherwise.
You can look inside the store, too
Cross promotion isn't just for non-overlapping franchises. In fact, some of the most common cross promotional campaigns are taking place in supermarkets. I'm sure everybody has seen some kind of "complete meal center" pop-up or fixture at their local grocer. While many are brand-specific (for example, a McCormick-branded center that recommends several same-branded products), more and more grocers are taking matters into their own hands. For instance, they might recommend a menagerie of brands that provide great value to the shopper or great margins for the retailer -- or maybe even both.
If you're involved with an ad-funded network (or even some types of merchandising and experiential networks), you should take a serious look at cross-promotion. Granted, it probably won't work for every digital signage network. But considering how many networks are having difficulties making ends meet with their ad sales, it seems like a natural avenue to explore. What's more, the recession may be changing the way companies look at this type of campaign -- and brands that might once have turned their noses at such a prospect might be more willing to consider them.
Have you tried cross-promotion before? If so, how did it turn out? If not, do you think you'd consider this approach in the future?