Lessons In Creative Marketing: Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest

In our household, it’s an honored tradition.  That one day out of the year, we plan our schedule around an all-important sporting event.  We choose our sides and have spirited debates about who will win.  We check the Vegas oddsmakers and we place our bets.  We spend the weekend preparing for the big event.  We invite friends over, and begin watching early coverage as the commentators discuss the weather conditions, the competitors, and the reported injuries.  We eagerly await the appearance of the contest’s “stars,” as they are introduced to huge applause and fanfare – with the crowd dividing itself into factions, based on their allegiances.  When a winner is finally crowned, our home is filled with sounds of celebration or agony over the defeat of our favored contender.  What I’m talking about, of course, is not the Super Bowl, but the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Nathans coneyisland exteriorThe original Nathan's Famous Stand in Coney Island, NY

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a little — but that's part of the fun.  The contest, also known as the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating, takes place every year on July 4th at the original Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York.  There is an umbrella organization, “Major League Eating,” which keeps records of the eaters, also known as "gurgitators," and officiates at a number of competitive eating events around the country (here's a cringe-inducing example of such an event: the world record for eating cow brains is held by Japan's Takeru Kobayashi, who polished off 17.7 pounds of the stuff in 15 minutes).  The winners of the big event (this year, Joey Chestnut and the diminutive 105-pound eater Sonya Thomas) are sought-after superstars that command appearance fees nationwide, usually in accordance with their relative eater rankings.  There is talk about competitive eating becoming a global sport.

While the contest itself has been around for almost 100 years, it took the creative marketing efforts of the event’s organizers, Richard Shea and George Shea, to take it to the next level.  Richard Shea, a former public relations executive for Nathan’s Famous, began keeping records of competitive eating contests in the late 1990s and began promoting the eaters as everyman “athletes.”  The top eaters can bring in six figures annually due solely to their appearances and participation in these events. 

Nathans coneyisland sign 

The Nathan’s Famous brand has become one of the most recognizable around, due largely to its connection with the annual contest.  The event is watched live by tens of thousands of people each year and is televised on ESPN (this year, almost nine million people watched the telecast either live or when it was re-broadcast), and it is covered by all major news networks.  There is no question that the contest has translated into huge sales for Nathan’s Famous.  Last year, the company did $282 million in gross sales and sold 453 million hot dogs  – which is almost double what it sold in 2004.  It’s somewhat incredible to hear that those sales levels were reached even though the company has only 270 restaurants in the United States. 

No matter what your view is on competitive eating and the Nathan’s Famous annual contest, it’s hard not to respect those results.  That type of coverage and brand recognition is difficult to come by, but Nathan’s Famous has obtained it through creative marketing of an event that has existed for almost a century.  Not only that, but instead of having to pay for that advertising, the company is actually paid a fee for the right to broadcast the event.  Which demonstrates the point: creative marketing can drive sales and brand awareness in a way that traditional advertising does not.  It worked for Nathan’s Famous.  It worked for Domino’s Pizza.  I will be eagerly waiting to see the next great idea in creative marketing.

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