RRRoll Up the Rim

"Kind of like a second Christmas – and pretty much the only good thing about February in Canada – all 35.16 million of us take to a local Timmy’s (one of the 4,492 locations in Canada) to try our luck at millions of prizes by rolling up the rim of our takeaway coffee cup. Canadians already score third highest for coffee consumption per capita compared to other countries; it might be a surprise we could drink any more coffee."

What is the magical power hidden in RRRolling up the Rim that causes us Canuck coffee enthusiasts to buy more coffee in the face of jitters and over-stimulation?

It’s none other than variable rewards.

Variable rewards is a type of behavioural reinforcement where instead of rewarding a behaviour every time (continuous reinforcement) or in specific stages (fixed ratio or intervals), a behaviour is rewarded inconsistently over a period of time. You can repeat a specific behaviour without ever knowing when you will be rewarded. Gambling is an example of variable rewards. And the reality is that variable rewards can be rather addictive.

The non-predictable schedule of rewards hooks us. Hooks us on to our double-doubles, apparently. Variable rewards are even more effective than fixed ratio rewards at conditioning behaviour. But why?


3,4-dihydroxyphenethylamine is a fun little chemical released by neurons that sends signals to other nerve cells and does a lot of important things, but for now I want you to focus on is that it helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure structures. When you are rewarded, levels of dopamine rise, creating a motivation for you to repeat the behaviour that got you that reward.

That’s why variable-reward- based marketing schemes are so effective. And RRRoll up the Rim has harnessed it perfectly with an immediate reward/no reward result as soon as you finish your hot chocolate or tea. This is in contrast to promotional campaigns like the Monopoly game at McDonalds or Starbucks for Life that requires you to make multiple purchases before being able to win a prize.

But it’s not just variable rewards that makes RRRoll up the Rim such a shining success in marketing…


It’s the power of FREE. The prizes won in RRRoll up the Rim are framed as free (“no purchase necessary”). You paid your normal price for your coffee, and to thank you for your loyalty we are throwing in this bonus extra chance at a prize. The word FREE is extremely powerful – and much more powerful than ‘almost free’. Dan Ariely proved this in an interesting experiment where they offered truffles and chocolate kisses at various costs. In the first condition, the truffles were offered at fifteen cents (a steep discount to its normal price) and a chocolate kiss was offers at one cent. Three-quarters of participants chose the chocolate truffle.

In the next condition, the truffle was offered at fourteen cents and the chocolate kiss was free. More than two out of three people chose the chocolate kiss rather than the discounted truffle, even though the difference in price between the two remained the same.

Because Canadians are habitualized into paying for morning coffees, the “no purchase necessary” prizes seem free. Even though a rational person can see you still need to pay for your mocha… positioning the prizes as free has been utilized in a powerful way.

As a marketing program, RRRoll up the Rim is a slam dunk. It gets other brands involved, co-advertising with prize donors brands right on their cups. With Tim Horton’s brand so embedded into national identity, people get an extra boost sharing the fun with their friends and colleagues.

It is not uncommon for people to keep a tally posted on their social media, and Tim Hortons turns consumers into brand advocates during RRRoll up the Rim season. The campaign’s perfect timing – towards the end of winter – might even capitalize on people’s fatigue and justify drinking just a bit more coffee. Also, many competitors in the coffee area run their promotions around the holidays, leaving a door open for Timmy’s to connect with their target customers (i.e., all of us, plus a few beavers, moose, and polar bears). Getting non-regular customers in the door, perhaps caught up in all the excitement, provides more chances for conversion into loyal Tim Horton patrons after they experience friendly service and good food that is great value-for-money.

What can we learn from RRRoll up the Rim?

  • Try out a promotion with variable rewards.
  • Each purchase should equate with an immediate result: win or no win.
  • Make sure to position it as no purchase necessary to harness the power of free.
  • Keep it simple: have the promotion apply to all products in a certain category (e.g., all beverages) so people don’t feel ‘tricked’ with loopholes and exceptions.
  • Get your timing right. Find out when your competitors’ promotions are and try to differentiate.
  • Leverage your brand advocates and harness the power of social media with a cool hashtag.

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