Restaurants that gamify their promotions find guests develop a stronger affinity for their brand.

While most advertising and marketing efforts have strict objectives and measurable outcomes, Jovanis Bouargoub is more flexible when it comes to his efforts to capitalize on the buzz surrounding Pokémon Go. If gamers travel to his Chop steakhouse in Chicago’s South Loop just to collect make-believe characters, he’s OK with that. Even if they purchase nothing. 

“It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “Not at all, actually. At least that person came into our place and saw what we have. And maybe one day that person will be a paying customer.”

The GPS-based Pokémon Go game, an augmented reality game where users travel to different locations to collect fictional Pokémon creatures, was introduced July 6 and became an immediate hit with both longtime and new fans of the Japanese media franchise. Bouargoub didn’t want to be left out of the craze. His Chop steakhouse became a Pokéstop, a hub for Pokémon players. He commissioned a brightly colored Pokémon mural. And both Chop and its sister barbecue concept Porkchop offer discounts to players as they reach milestones within the game. For instance, after reaching Level 15, players can buy a beer at Chop for only a dollar. At Level 25, they receive half off their bill. 

Pokémon Go was widely heralded as an unparalleled success: In mid-July, information technology firm SimilarWeb reported that the game surpassed Twitter in daily active users, eclipsed Facebook in engagement, and was far more popular than Netflix. The game also became an instant hit among restaurants and retailers, who capitalized on the hype by purchasing in-game sponsorships, which offer a rare opportunity to drive traffic to specific locations during specific time periods. 

Bouargoub says purchasing sponsorship through the app has proved beneficial. While some people come in just to collect characters, some have come back to buy a beer or a meal, independent of their interest in the game. “It’s not like it’s cheap, but it is worth it,” Bouargoub says. “The buzz is worth it. The marketing behind it is worth it. It’s a great invention of a game. And hopefully we are using it correctly. For us as a business, it is definitely worth it.”

Chop’s owner says he will keep an eye out for future cultural phenomena like Pokémon Go that offer a business opportunity. For his brand, such playful promotions fit in well—the purposefully casual Chop isn’t exactly your suit-and-tie kind of steakhouse. “We are the Everyman steakhouse,” Bouargoub says. “You don’t have to be dressed up to come in. So for us it makes sense. It makes the place cool.”


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Chop Chicago

Gamify the Promotion

Pokémon Go’s success has undoubtedly highlighted the unique draw of gaming, but it’s also shown that retailers and restaurants can convert consumers’ engagement with games into engagement with their brands—whether it’s with custom games created in-house or games out in the world that allow businesses to play a role. 

John Findlay, founder and program designer at digital game builder Launchfire, says gamified promotions allow restaurants to build deeper engagement than an LTO or loyalty program can. 

“Loyalty members really appreciate adding a little fun,” he says. “I think the difference is that typical loyalty programs reward people for purchases only. But what we’re seeing with gamified programs is we can reward customers for other things important to the brand.”

Launchfire’s custom games (usually built on websites, not apps) allow restaurants to push customers to sign up for email blasts or complete surveys, cultivating deeper relationships than they might through just a loyalty reward. Some games resemble McDonald’s iconic Monopoly promotion, which allows customers to collect more game pieces with each additional visit. 

One Launchfire game built for California Pizza Kitchen saw restaurants handing out game cards in the store. Customers weren’t allowed to open the cards in store. If theirs wasn’t a winning card, they were promoted to a special game online for another chance at a prize. If they did win, they would have to return to the restaurant to redeem their prize.

Regardless of how they’re designed, Findlay says, games serve a different role than a traditional ad campaign. “I think people are motivated by the ability to play and the ability to win, and secondarily, by the brand. If I ran a commercial on TV and said turn to channel 57 to see an ad about my new menu item, how many people are going to turn the channel?” Findlay says. “If I said tune to channel 57 to play a game and you could win a free meal, you’re going to get a much bigger yield. To create that emotional experience with customers, it needs to be interactive.”

Fair Play

That interactive experience also allows restaurants to capture rich data on their customers, explains Shyam Rao, CEO and founder of Punchh, which builds branded mobile apps for restaurants. Through a mixture of surveys, games, and loyalty programs, Punchh-built apps empower restaurateurs to better market to specific customers.

“Really, the holy grail is about understanding what your ideal customer looks like: their profile information, when they come in, what they buy, how much they spend, who they are,” he says. “If I were a vegetarian or gluten-free, then you shouldn’t be marketing the Meat Lovers pizza to me. There’s only so many emails or push notifications after which I’ll ignore it.”

Still, games may not be a good fit for all full-service brands. While Punchh builds apps and games for restaurants from the quick-service realm to fine dining, Rao says games may not be right for everyone. The key is ensuring engagement efforts tie into the overall brand identity. 


“There are many ways to engage guests,” Rao says. “When appropriately used, any sort of mechanism can be powerful. But you don’t want just a car with no engine in it. You need to have the intelligence platform running in the background.”

If done correctly, Rao says, engagement efforts will foster the same feelings that customers have toward a familiar mom and pop store. That’s a deeper relationship than an earn-and-burn loyalty program can foster. “That’s what we’re trying to enable: that one-to-one connection. You’re engaging your guest through all these connections,” Rao says. “I don’t think it’s as transactional. It’s not to use the machine to get things out of these people. It’s to build that relationship. And if you build that relationship, you will get more.”

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Hickory Tavern

Bringing Home the Gold

During the 2016 Summer Olympics, the 24-unit Hickory Tavern launched its first-ever Tavernlympics, a limited-time promotion built around the summer games. The promotion was based on a punchcard system: Diners who visited a Hickory Tavern five times during the 17-day Olympics and spent at least $5 each visit received a $20 gift certificate. 

“I think it made a lot of sense for us,” says CMO Thom Perez. “Sports are in our DNA. Our guests like competition. They like a little friendly smack talk now and then.”

The summer Games presented a unique opportunity to drive sports-based traffic outside of traditional marquee sporting seasons like March Madness or Monday Night Football. Perez says game-based promotions are not a major component of Hickory Tavern’s marketing strategy, but the Tavernlympics did give the brand a unique draw compared to other sports bars: It gave diners a good excuse to cheer on Team USA at a Hickory Tavern—and, while the restaurants have some ultra loyal customers, Perez says he wouldn’t expect many to visit five times within 17 days outside this promotion. At the conclusion of the summer Games, Perez reports the company did experience increased traffic during the Olympics, particularly on weekdays, and by mid-August they were already seeing gift card redemptions. 

“Anybody could turn on a TV and show the Olympics. I could do that at my house,” he says. “We try and think about things, about what’s really going to enhance the viewing experience for the guest. What’s going to make it more interesting, more dynamic?” 

Whether centered on the Olympics or cultural trends like Pokémon Go, game-based promotions often require a rapid response from restaurants looking to get in on the action, says Dan Bejmuk, co-founder and CEO of digital agency Dreambox Creations. That means those brands that found a way to incorporate Pokémon Go into their marketing strategies should remain on watch for the next cultural obsession.

“We find that the most successful restaurants on digital—whether it’s something incorporating Pokémon Go or incorporating a response to a celebrity that may Tweet the brand—the brands that are the most successful are the ones that are able to nimbly adapt to what has been presented to them,” Bejmuk says. “It’s one of the reasons our agency now supports the restaurants on social media sites seven days a week, so that we can very quickly and creatively react.”


He sees plenty of opportunity with trending games like Pokémon Go. In that app, it’s relatively cheap to buy a lure, which, as the name suggests, lures coveted characters to a certain location. “You can put a lure right out there and see guest traffic increase over the time you’re running the lure,” he says. “During the time when the lure is active, restaurant staff can engage with gamers to further introduce the restaurant brand, whether it’s through samples or introducing verbally the brand that is right next door.”

He says restaurateurs should consider whether gamified promotions make sense for their individual brands, as games should be a natural extension of a brand’s story. Dreambox built an online game for Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the whimsical chain built around the iconic 1994 movie, “Forrest Gump.” Bejmuk says that game works well for the brand because the trivia questions are based on the movie’s story line. That’s probably something a diner would find nowhere else.

“I think if it’s presented in a way that is really resonating with the pillars of an individual restaurant concept, I think it’s something that can work well for a brand,” he says. “But we have this tendency in the restaurant space—especially as it relates to tying into POS or loyalty programs—there are some key brands that will rebrand the same products over and over again. And I think that’s risky for a brand.”

Daniel Black, CEO and founder of marketing technology company Glass-Media, says the rise of mobile platforms like Pokémon Go speaks to the power of location-based promotions. “A new emerging trend is that brands are targeting people who are already at the business,” Black says. “They can throw you an offer or ping you when you’re 10 feet from the front door.” He suggests brands should experiment with trends like Pokémon Go, which require far less investment than custom-built apps or mobile sites.

“That’s why platforms like Pokémon Go, Google, and Facebook are already popular,” he says. “The audience is already there, and the cost to get involved is not too high.”

Executives at Buffalo Wings & Rings used similar logic in creating the brand’s fall fantasy football promotion.

The 70-unit chain had previously created a Pick’em promotion, challenging diners to predict winners of weekly NFL matchups. But customers weren’t nearly as engaged with the restaurants’ Pick’em contests as they were with their own fantasy football leagues, says marketing director Diane Matheson.

“We did try to do something ourselves,” Matheson says, “but at the end of our day, are we game development experts? That’s just not our forte. Our forte is great environment, great experience, great food. There’s no sense in us trying to reinvent fantasy football, but we can help enhance the experience.”

Instead of creating another in-house game, Buffalo Wings & Rings decided to jump on the fantasy football bandwagon. A preseason fantasy football kit offered free restaurant space for fantasy league drafts, free Wi-Fi, draft sheets, VIP coupons, and an in-house draft board. Plus, each league’s winner will receive a $25 gift card at the end of the season.

The kit even includes “punishment cards” for league members who break league rules—by selecting a kicker in the first round, for instance. One such punishment required rule breakers to eat one of the brand’s atomic wings. “We’re trying to bring a little bit of fun to the actual draft party,” she says. “And we’re giving them all the things they need to execute a successful draft in the restaurant.”