Free Food Street Fight

Free Food

Share this:

As sophisticated as marketing and technology have become among MULO (multi-location) brands, one thing remains true and timeless: People love free stuff — especially free food … stuff to eat.

That has been evidenced over the past months by the number of fast-casual restaurants that have incorporated “sampling” into their marketing and customer acquisition strategies.

Does it build long-term brand loyalty? Probably not, but the brands that give away burgers, pizza, chicken, and fries need to use their technology superpowers to continue to woo those freebie-seekers and turn them into frequent diners.

Among the brands that have recently launched free food promos are:

  • El Pollo Loco: For National Burrito Day, the company (close to 400 locations) offered codes for free food on their app. This is smart for two reasons: it tied into a holiday (albeit contrived) and ensured that consumers would visit the app to claim the deal. They also waived delivery fees in celebration of the “fauxliday.” Chipotle created the holiday, and many other quick-service brands also offered deals this year.
  • No holiday to celebrate? Create your own! McDonald’s invented Free Fries Friday. Not to be outdone by its burger rival, the King (as in Burger King) also has a free fries promotion tied to its app. Let them eat potatoes!
  • BOGOs (buy-one-get-one-free) abound in the food and beverage space, and a website called (appropriately) “Free Stuff Finder” gives consumers a list of where to find the deals each month. Among April’s brands are Ikea (a classic example of a retailer that has incorporated a restaurant business into its offering) and a wide range of fast casual and sit-down restaurant brands.

What are some basic principles of FF (free food) marketing?

  • Price the offer (if it’s a BOGO or minimum purchase) to ensure you’re not losing your shirt (or your fries) in the deal.
  • Develop a cohesive marketing and PR plan around your offer so that consumers know how and where to find it. If you plan to do outdoor sampling via a food truck or other activation, make sure you:
    • Allow enough time for planning and permitting
    • Have a system for capturing consumer data without slowing down the process
    • Train your “sampler squad” to make sure they properly represent your brand
  • Establish clear KPIs for success measurement.
  • Tie the offer into data collection so consumers aren’t just grabbing and going.
  • Utilize the data you’ve collected to build relationships with your “samplers” and ensure you’re not just attracting a bunch of “free deal grabbers” who will move on to the next brand that comps them a bag of fries or a taco.

Free or deeply discounted food deals are a great way to get your goodies into the mouths and stomachs of new prospects. But make sure you’re taking full advantage of the opportunity and are left with more than empty taco shells and empty pockets at the end of the promotion!


Nancy A Shenker, senior editor with Street Fight, is a former big brand (Citibank, Mastercard, Reed Exhibitions) marketing strategist and leader. She has been featured in, the New York Times and Forbes.