Marketing is an orchestrated attempt to capture attention. For Build-A-Bear workshops at malls across America on Thursday, the orchestra turned into a total circus.

According to multiple reports, customers stood in long lines to take advantage of a one-day "pay your age" promotion. Building your own bear in the workshop usually costs around $15-$20. (Upselling additional accessories can make the purchase more like $50.)

Thinking the typical customer is likely an elementary age child--e.g., the kind who understands the value of picking out your own patterns and a colorful hat--company reps likely envisioned capturing the imaginations of their target market. However, what they seriously underestimated is that people are quick to figure out how to take advantage of a sale. The younger the child, the better the deal.

In one video, you can see hundreds of moms with babies and toddlers. Another report said company reps noticed, after stores in New York and the UK opened, that the promotion would not make it through the rest of the day, deciding to hand out vouchers instead. That wasn't quite enough to ease the stress after some customers waited for hours. (The CEO later apologized for the promotion and promised to do better.) 

Fights  broke out at a store in Newcastle, England, and customers attacked employees at another workshop in Belfast.

How does this happen? It's not hard to see how Build-A-Bear went off the (stroller) wheels.

Pay your age works at a buffet restaurant because toddlers and infants don't eat that much, and the parents will buy a full price meal. It works at the Chuck E. Cheeses because little kids don't eat that much pizza and they have a limited bandwidth for arcade games.

But designing your own Build-A-Bear? Parents are savvy enough to know that presenting your one-year-old means you'll pay only a $1, and little Ezra or Eve will appreciate the gesture in a few years. (Or you can re-gift the bear to an older child.)

The main lesson for anyone thinking of developing a marketing campaign is to think through all of the implications, and to understand where it will all lead. Can you sustain the promotion within your prime customer base and also outside of your base? If you start a promotion and it's a major hit, what will that mean in terms of supplies, servicing customers in a timely way, and still making everyone happy in all age groups?

More importantly, you have to envision how your craftiest customers will find a workaround, and what that will mean for your brand. Build-A-Bear obviously bet against parents bringing in their infants and toddlers, and if you're picturing only first-time parents, you know they will be unlikely to pay $15 for a child that isn't even old enough to eat cereal yet. Unfortunately, it was all short-sighted. Parents are smart (and sleep deprived).

Honestly, there's a final lesson about the overall value of any promotion. Once parents figured out that they could pay the least amount for the youngest kids, the promotion fell flat, but marketers could have figured that out. They wanted to raise awareness about the brand among elementary age customers and their parents.

In the end, all that's left is a bruise on the brand. And unhappy toddlers.

Published on: Jul 14, 2018