Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2018/ Smile Cookie Shenanigans

Smile Cookie Shenanigans

So Tim Horton's has a marketing campaign going on. For one week they have offered to sell "Smile Cookies," which are their regular chocolate chip cookies on which they paint smiley faces in icing. Then Tim Horton's promises that for every smile cookie they sell, they will donate some part of the proceeds to charity. Customers can accelerate their diabetes and give to a good cause at the same time. What could be better?

The marketing campaign has been a great success. People on Twitter are taking pictures of their cookies and encouraging others to support charity via sugar. Some people tell stories of visiting multiple Tim Horton's locations before they snag a cookie. Everybody is happy that Tim Horton's is such a generous corporate citizen.

Everybody but me, of course. Tim Horton's doesn't care about charity. They care about their revenues and their branding. These stories about people travelling to multiple locations before snagging a cookie is no accident. Every smile cookie Tim Horton's sells costs them money, so they limit the number of cookies available in each store. The scarcity makes finding a cookie seem like a bigger deal, so people are more inclined to take pictures and share them on social media. It's a fantastic marketing campaign, but it has everything to do with branding and little to do with helping charities or anything else.

It would be easy for Tim Horton's to stock enough smile cookies. They could forecast the demand and then make sure they had enough cookies in stock. They have no problems keeping their high-margin donuts and muffins in stock -- it is only the smile cookie that is scarce. In fact, several locations I visited were selling the plain chocolate chip cookies without smiles, even as the cashiers claimed they were all out of smile cookies, sorry! I am pretty sure those cookies get iced in store. Keeping enough cookies to satisfy demand would be trivial. But every cookie costs Tim Horton's profit, and they have no interest in satisfying demand. Instead they assign a certain marketing budget they will spend on this campaign, and some small fraction of that ends up being donated to charity. Anything beyond that is out of bounds.

Tim Horton's likes the increased social media presence when people take pictures of their finds, and they like the bait and switch. If you go to Timmie's looking for a smile cookie and they have mysteriously sold out, maybe you will get a coffee or a regular cookie instead.

Tim Horton's is not a good corporate citizen. They are marketers, and you are their prey. When you (like me) buy a cookie and feel virtuous about it, they have converted you. When you post pictures of your cookies on social media, you are giving them the best advertising they could hope for. But don't confuse this with goodwill towards charity. Tim Horton's wants to exploit/leverage the social capital they get by associating their brand with charity, but there is a strict limit on how much support they are willing to offer.

We would all spend our money more effectively if we kept our cookie and our charity budgets separate, and made sure we gave to charity in effective ways. But we don't do this. We think we can have our cookie and eat it too.