By Charles Passy
I recently celebrated a birthday. Not a milestone birthday, as in one ending in a zero. Not even a particularly happy birthday, given that the pandemic is still playing havoc with our ability to host celebratory gatherings of any kind.
Nevertheless, fast-food America kept trying to make the day seem as special as possible — and I decided to take them up on their offers.
In case you’re the type to completely ignore marketing promos, let me explain: In recent years, chain restaurants have turned birthdays into freebie bonanzas, rewarding customers with all sorts of menu items, from burritos to big ol’ cups of coffee, on one’s big day. Actually, the day-long celebration has turned more into a week-long or even month-long one — the offers (with some exceptions) are usually available both well in advance and well after your birthday itself.
For that matter, it’s not just fast-food chains that are jumping on the birthday bandwagon. You can score deals from movie theaters, cosmetics stores and other companies. The Hey, it’s Free website lists more than 300 birthday offers to be had.
Marketing experts say it’s no surprise why this is happening. As restaurants and retailers increasingly look to boost sales through app-based rewards programs , they have discovered the birthday freebie is a great incentive to convince customers to sign up for these programs in the first place — and, just as important, to encourage folks to stay on as members, and receive constant solicitations in the process.
It’s a kind of deal-with-the-marketing-devil, says Craig Agranoff, a Florida-based marketing executive.
“A lot of people won’t unsubscribe to a year-long’s worth of notifications, because if they do, they won’t get that free slice of pizza,” Agranoff explained.
Another key factor behind the birthday boom: There’s hardly a worry about offending anyone when wishing them a happy birthday, says Thomas Donohoe, author of “The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook.” Compare that with the fine line companies must tread these days when it comes to marketing around religious holidays, such as Christmas. In a word: birthdays are “super safe,” said Donohoe.
I was curious to learn how this birthday boom plays out. Naturally, I wanted the free stuff, but I also wanted to see how easy it was to claim the offers. Would restaurant personnel gladly hand me that complimentary slice of pizza — or would they look at me as some kind of pathetic freebie-seeker? (It should be noted that some of my friends refer to me as Cheapskate Charlie…)
I claimed 11 offers over the course of about a week — none on my birthday itself, as it turns out (it was a nice day to just stay at home and cook a steak dinner). That all equated to about a $63 haul, not including the tax I’d have paid if I purchased the items. To be sure, I appreciated the “gifts,” but I can’t say every chain quite hit the mark.
First, the freebie champs. The best offers, at least dollar-wise, came from Krispy Kreme /zigman2/quotes/227704127/composite DNUT +2.89% (a dozen of their original glazed doughnuts, worth $14.59) and Moe’s Southwest Grill (a burrito of my choice, $9.69). When you score such a deal, you feel like you’ve gotten something that matches the occasion of completing another trip around the sun.
Of course, Krispy Kreme has long been about free doughnuts — this is the same company that practically pioneered the free food-for-vaccines promotion. The generous birthday offer is somewhat an extension of that, explained Dave Skena, the company’s chief marketing officer. “We felt making birthdays more special during the pandemic might provide a little more joy for customers,” he told MarketWatch, adding that the company has given away 700,000 “birthday dozens” since introducing the offer in 2020.
But here’s what I found especially interesting: The employees at Krispy Kreme and Moe’s were also the only ones in my survey who — guess what? — WISHED ME A HAPPY BIRTHDAY. I get that fast-food workers have it tough, especially since the onset of the pandemic, so maybe they can’t be worried about spreading a little cheer. But I couldn’t help but think the lack of a courtesy birthday greeting defeated the point of the freebie in terms of building brand loyalty.
Which is not to say I encountered any true gruffness. At worst, a few chain employees didn’t seem familiar with the birthday offer, so it took a little time and explanation to have them ring up the freebie. Yes, I’m looking at you Sbarro with your not-quite-New-York-quality XL NY Slice (valued at about $6.50), and your not-very-enthusiastic staff. (The pizza chain didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for comment.)
I also came across freebie offers that frankly felt not-so-free. McDonald’s /zigman2/quotes/203508018/composite MCD +1.75% , the 800-pound gorilla of the fast-food world, could do no better than to give me a baked apple pie (valued at $1.79) to mark my birthday. I mean, I can practically score a free pie at McDonald’s just by breathing — it’s almost always an offer on the McDonald’s app, albeit with a minimum purchase of $1. (When contacted by MarketWatch, McDonald’s officials didn’t comment on the value aspect of the offer.)
Then there’s Chipotle /zigman2/quotes/200781108/composite CMG -0.33% , which gave me free birthday chips and queso (valued at about $5), but also required a minimum $5 purchase to get the deal. If Moe’s can cough up a free burrito for my big day, why can’t Chipotle do the same? (The chain didn’t respond for comment.)
I also ran into some technical glitches. As in, I couldn’t get the app to work when I tried to claim my Subway birthday offer of a free cookie (valued at 89 cents), but the employee at the store I visited saw fit to still provide the reward. And at Cinnabon, I easily claimed my four free mini cinnamon rolls (or BonBites, valued at $5.69), only to later learn that was the reward for joining the rewards program itself. The birthday offer is a free cold-brew coffee — alas, I didn’t bother to claim it.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle I faced was making my way around town to claim all these offers. It was a fun exercise (literally) in journalistic inquiry, but I’m not sure fellow cheapskates will see the value in the effort. Even that generous Krispy Kreme “birthday dozen” deal started to seem less than idyllic when I realized I only had the appetite for a doughnut or two on the day I claimed the offer. And day-old doughnuts don’t have quite the same appeal.
Does that mean I’ll stop being a Krispy Kreme rewards member? Not quite. Regardless of how much sense it makes, it’s hard not to heed the call of a free dozen doughnuts. Especially come birthday time.