Sales promotions agencies are seeking to storm the world of social media and acquire a reputation for work that extends beyond merely running simplistic on-pack competitions offering a chance to win cars, holidays or cash.
Their pitch is that their experience in dreaming up engaging competitions to stimulate sales has put them in pole position to create social-media campaigns that build brands and engage consumers.
Rivals are sceptical, dismissing the agencies as 'bottom feeders' operating at the low end of marketing. Ad agencies and digital specialists view sales promotions as a risky move for brands, arguing that they tend to attract consumers who are devoid of brand loyalty.
However, Julian Saunders, partner at agency The Joined Up Company, sees things differently.
'The problem for ad agencies is that they are all about messaging. Sales promotional skills lie in designing competitions, asking what would be the most exciting mechanism we can create to encourage people to get involved. Social-media campaigns rely on these skills,' he says.
Saunders cites the example of Air New Zealand's 'grab a plane' online promotion. Under this, Kiwis were offered the chance to win a plane ride to anywhere in New Zealand for themself and 40 friends by entering a competition stating where they wanted to go if they won and what they would do there.
About 150,000 people entered. The campaign aimed to change perceptions of Air New Zealand as a stuffy and old-fashioned brand compared with budget airlines.
Another instance of online engagement triggered by a competition was the Toyota Aygo 'Dance party' promotion in Belgium, where people filmed themselves dancing in cars and uploaded the videos to compete for a place in a final. The winner received an Aygo Music car and national media coverage of their dance (see case study, above right).
The difference from 10 years ago is marked. Then, a car launch might have involved running a competition where the public created slogans for the new model to be in with a chance of winning the vehicle. Typically, such campaigns were created by a sales promotions agency.
However, Saunders sees the 'Dance party' campaign as an evolution of this strategy. 'We've been running these things since sales promotions were invented. The win dynamic has become a form of engagement,' he says.
Such examples abound overseas, points out Scott Knox, managing director of industry body the Marketing Agencies Association. He argues that the UK and US are hampered by the siloed approach of agencies, with specialist companies handling advertising, online, social media and sales promotions.
'When you look at some of the campaigns coming out of New Zealand, Belgium or Brazil, they aren't thinking "We need sales promotion", but they create marketing campaigns with a sales-promotion mechanic at their heart. There isn't the discipline split among agencies in those countries that we have here,' he says.
However, Robin Grant, managing director of social-media agency We Are Social, warns against using competitions to encourage people to take part in social-media campaigns.
'We feel that social media is a brand issue,' he says. 'Brands are mistakenly using sales promotion agencies, effectively "buying" fans that in many cases are totally unconnected with the brand.'
He adds:'It may be effective at driving up fan numbers, but often those fans are just deal-seekers. It proves fairly worthless in the long term.'
He cites work his agency did for Heinz Tomato Ketchup, whereby the brand's Facebook fans were given the opportunity to buy a limited-edition bottle of balsamic vinegar Heinz ketchup before other consumers, as having crucial differences. 'We didn't discount it, we increased fan numbers, and many were loyalist advocates, creating value for the brand,' he says.
The old-style on-pack promotion is something from which many sales promotions agencies are trying to shift away. Marco Gazzelloni, business director at Billington Cartmell, which created the 'Coke Zone' sales promotion campaign, says the agency is now more heavily involved with digital engagement and advertising.
Last year, for example, the agency created a promotion combining an on-pack mechanism with social media for Impulse. Entering a code from a can of the body spray gave users 10% off Lipsy clothing, and a chance to win £250 of Lipsy vouchers.
Gazzelloni says sales promotions now account for only a third of the agency's business, with much of the rest coming from advertising and social media.
Billington Cartmell's latest high-profile campaign is Pot Noodle's 'Easy Street', promoting the convenience of the instant-snack brand. The campaign has a competition at its centre, where those taking part can win a 'year on Easy Street', with prizes including cash, a TV or a 12-month supply of Pot Noodle.
Gazzelloni says: 'It's much more than a sales promotion. We are repositioning the brand with "easy" at the heart of everything we do on Facebook and digital media over the next few years.
'The competition is purely for engagement. In social media, most consumers look for an incentive or reward; it is expected that the brand will give something back.'
Tom Poynter, joint chief executive at Iris London, argues that brands must offer more than deals to connect with consumers on social media. 'Brands that decide to offer only promotional coupons through their social activity will miss the opportunity to learn more about their customers, engage them further and develop those customers into brand advocates,' he adds.
Many sales promotions agencies are looking to become integrated marketing agencies and capitalise on the trend of brands slimming down their rosters to one or two integrated shops.
With a still-pervasive view that sales promotion is the lowest form of marketing, it is understandable that the agencies wish to reposition their identity.
'Sales promotions agencies traditionally are about driving sales in-store, which is fine, but it is a perspective at the bottom end of marketing. It is not about brand.
It is dealt with in a different part of the marketing department from brand issues,' says Grant.
Meanwhile, Knox believes sales promotion agencies must start to 'get their heads out of the on-pack world' and take on ad agencies and other disciplines. 'The better sales promotions agencies are thinking about creating entertainment properties, campaigns that have legs,' he says.
Shifting the sales promotions industry away from on-pack competitions and coupon giveaways will be a tough job in a marketing landscape awash with agencies from multifarious backgrounds.
The strict distinctions between disciplines such as advertising, digital, direct marketing and sales promotion are giving way to a free-for-all where everyone does a bit of everything.
The basics of marketing - creating engaging campaigns that promote brands - have not changed, but the struggle for agency supremacy will be hard fought.
FRIJJ - 'WIN WARREN'
Frijj, the milkshake brand, ran the 'Win Warren' on-pack competition where the prize was 'to win a work experience boy' called Warren. He would do whatever the winners wanted him to, and their time with him was filmed and posted online.
Nathan King, marketing director for liquids at Dairy Crest, says: 'Frijj as a brand is all about not taking itself too seriously. Our core market of 15- to 24-year-old males expects our campaigns to be irreverent and we wanted to create something different from the usual on-pack promotion. Using social media rather than traditional ad routes was an obvious choice.
'The campaign was successful, with a redemption rate more than two times that of the UK norm for on-pack promotions, and the conversation we had online was largely positive.'
TOYOTA - 'DANCE PARTY'
Toyota's 'Dance party' engagement campaign was launched through TV and online in Belgium. It asked people to create better 'car dance moves' than Yuri and Boris, the two characters that the push featured.
Viewers were urged to upload the videos to Garage TV, a site similar to YouTube. The winners were invited to a 'dance-off' to win a Toyota Aygo.
Andre Juprelle, advertising manager for Toyota Belgium, says the campaign was not a sales promotion, but 'everything at the same time'.
He adds: 'We wanted an integrated agency, so we hired Happiness Brussels. The problem is that young people perceive Toyota as cold and boring. We had to change this. It is easier with our small cars. We wanted to grow awareness of the Aygo and we succeeded.'
About 2900 videos were uploaded, with 723,000 unique views, and sales of the model rose by 19%.