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Will Shell’s intergalactic experiment pay off?

Will Shell’s intergalactic experiment pay off?

Cover story plus coverage on 7 pages with extensive colour piks: Promotions & Incentives Magazine July-August 1991


Hang on! I’ve got a new idea… …said Don Marketing when the agency sold Shell its idea for the Star Trek promotion, neatly persuading the oil giant to abandon its catalogue scheme promotions. Case study by Anne-Marie Crawford

“Promotions run in a cyclic mode. With our catalogue scheme we had reached the end of the cycle and run into stalemate,” says Alan McNab, national promotions manager at Shell UK.

Hence, faced with a moribund market, Shell decided to change tack and launch its Star Trek game.

Collect and select schemes, points equal prizes, have long been stalwart forecourt promotions among the leading petrol companies. The familiar catalogues from which consumers choose different items when they have collected a certain number of points are almost synonymous with buying petrol.

Of course Shell has run promotional games in the past. These have included ‘Mastermind’, ‘Bruce’s Lucky Deal’ and, probably the most famous of them all, the ‘Make Money’ game, which its creator Don Marketing claimed boosted Shell’s sales by 30%. But these games did not represent a real departure from the long-term loyalty schemes.

Star Trek was different. McNab says it was a vehicle to take Shell away from a period of stagnation and adhering to promotional norms into “a new world of promotions”. But this wasn’t just a whim. Shell had concrete reasons for believing it was time for a change.

Early in 1988, Shell’s then promotional games agency, Don Marketing, carried out research which indicated that although the majority of motorists (51%) favoured collection schemes with a reward, a proportion preferred games because of the thrill of the instant win. Shell also felt that it was locked into a line of promotion it couldn’t vary.

According to Don Marketing’s managing director John Donovan, “It wanted to be flexible and topical where others were not.” McNab also saw it as a problem of sheer dullness: “It was time to inject a bit of excitement back into a stale marketplace.”

Don Marketing presented its findings to Shell with the recommendation that they carry out their own research. Donovan says: “We’re not a market researcher. We’re about promotional games so we’re bound to be a bit biased.” Shell commissioned its own research and came to similar conclusions.

From 1988 until January this year, Shell began winding down Collect and Select and started to work out its brief for the Big Idea which would carry it into the new world of promotions. Its complete change of tack was finally made in the spring of 1990.

Don Marketing and a number of other agencies pitched. Although Don has supplied Shell with all its major promotional games for ten years, the agency is not on a retainer and is expected to jostle for new work with its rivals. A small agency with a small team, Don Marketing works exclusively in promotional games, but it holds its own against more broad-based consultancies.

At this early stage, a number of schemes were bandied about and one idea – not Don Marketing’s – emerged as an outright winner. It was researched by Shell, then tossed back into the pot with other ideas. It still came out on top.

Shell was all set to run with this mystery project when at the last minute licensing problems with a third party arose and plans had to be dropped.

Shell was left with a major problem. It had deliberately steered itself off the Collect and Select course and now it was now stuck without an alternative plan. Don Marketing moved swiftly.

The Idea

Star Trek was Donovan’s idea. It came as he was driving home one evening. “I heard on the radio that the BBC had negotiated some deal with Paramount and was launching the new series of Star Trek. It also had plans to re-release the old 1979 series,” Donovan says. His plan was to use the Star Trek theme as the basis of a promotional scratch card game.

A number of other factors ensured that the idea took root. It was timely, which Shell wanted. Star Trek’s 25th anniversary was approaching and there was a flurry of renewed interest in the series. Sky TV had plans to run the very first series in an early evening slot and CIC Video announced that it was licensed to distribute videos of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Star Trek seemed to have universal appeal (the BBC thought it was worth paying $6m for its package). And as McNab was to say later, “Star Trek embodys a lot of Shell’s own values.” Donovan felt he was on a winner.

Early problems and solutions

Shell was not immediately told about Don Marketing’s Big Idea. The agency still had a lot of ground to cover and it was too early to say whether the scheme could actually work.

The first and potentially most damaging aspect to consider was the likelihood of a lengthy licensing wrangle which, because of the time factor, could have thrown everything out of whack.

In July 1990, Donovan telephoned Ten Marketing, Paramount’s UK licensing agent. Within 24 hours a deal was agreed in principle. The basic tenets never changed. “Ten Marketing’s director of international licensing, Jonathan Zilli, was in London at the time and this definitely speeded things up,” says Donovan. Games are what Don Marketing do best and once it had the licensing go-ahead, it was fairly straightforward for the agency to sit down and think about the game mechanics.

On 13 July 1990, although there were still a host of attendant details to be worked through, Donovan was able to present his basic Star Trek idea to Shell in reasonably final form.

Shell was impressed. Stuart Carson, then Shell’s national promotions coordinator and McNab’s predecessor, set events in motion. Shell agreed a budget of£4.5m to include prizes, advertising, security, printing costs, distribution and fulfilment – each potential headaches in their own right.

Shell was happy with the basic game mechanic which Don Marketing devised. Quite simply it was a scratchcard device featuring faces from the old Star Trek series: scratch off so many characters and win a cash prize. The promotion was to be offered to each of Shell’s 2,700 forecourts with a no-purchase-necessary element. In the event, 2,150 accepted.

Once Don Marketing got the okay from Shell, it took on extra staff, rolled up its sleeves and got down to work. At the height of the promotion, the agency had 15 people working on Star Trek. It wrote the rules, advised on legality, worked out game insurance with Lloyds and decided on the prizes.

These prizes fell into denominations of a £250 000 shareout for uncovering seven Captain Kirks, through £1000, £100 and £5 handouts right down to 50p for four or more Lieutenant Uhuras.

The £5 and 50p wins had to be submitted promptly for verification and redemption at the station where the game card was obtained. Other claims were addressed directly to Don Marketing’s offices in Stowmarket Suffolk.

In addition to the thrill of the instant win, the Star Trek game also combined a collect element, with the chance to win a holiday in California as the incentive. At the bottom of each card was a tear-off strip with one scratch-off portion. Beneath this portion was hidden a character from the new Star Trek series. Collect six and win the holiday.

McNab points out, “The Star Trek game combined a repeat purchase element.” To control the number of winners, Don Marketing seeded one particular new character, Riker, in only intermittently. Consumers kept scratching away in the hope of the trip to Los Angeles.

Everything appeared fairly straight-forward except for one thing: Shell insisted on an every-card-can-win game. An every-card-can-win game throws up a security nightmare. Donovan explains: “It’s to do with the problem of an open-ended prize fund liability. I’ve heard of cases in the States where everyone has ended up winning. Also, one of the first noughts and crosses games run by Esso had to be cancelled on the second day because it produced 20 valid claims for £1 00000.” The legal actions resulting from the Esso case are still dragging on five years later.

Nevertheless, Don Marketing was prepared to take this on board and face legal problems if and when they arose.

Events progress

A key security element was the printer. Don Marketing chose Norton and Wright, part of the Bowater group, because they had worked with them in the past and were impressed.

Ray Henderson, UK sales director at Norton and Wright, says, “Our speciality is game cards and lottery tickets. We actually brought the scratchcard process to Britain in 1976.” Norton and Wright persuaded Alan Roman, Shell’s print manager, to print their game cards on foil-coated board, developed for over-seas markets, which cannot be seen through, even with an X-ray.

Another factor which demanded attention was the game card variables. A scratch card promotion like Star Trek, generates several thousand combinations of characters. Don Marketing had to ensure that, because every card had a winning combination, there was no chance of anyone working out the combinations and winning every time.

Once again, the printers played a major role in making sure this didn’t happen.

The agency sent its gamecard variables on computer disk to Norton and Wright, where everything was verified.

Henderson explains, “We have computerised programmes to check all that. We vetted all the work.” Just to make sure, Don Marketing checked the films manually before millions were printed.

To keep things absolutely watertight, Don Marketing sent a senior member of its team down to the printing plant to seed the prizes, which ensured there was a spread throughout the country. “We wanted to ensure that only one individual knew which boxes contained the major prizes. Because of this process, we could insure against too many winners,” says Donovan. As a final security measure, each prize-winning card had a unique code printed under the “void if removed” panel.

By August 1990, the final checks were done and Star Trek was on the press ready for printing, but the Gulf situation worsened and Shell froze its plans.

In September 1990, Carson left Shell. In the interim his role was filled by Mark Foster, marketing communications manager. Shell took advantage of this breather to carry out further research through Hall Testing. It involved getting consumers to play the game. There were a couple of modifications, but none of the basic tenets was altered.

Around November of 1990, McNab took over as national promotions manager, retail, at Shell. After four months of inactivity, Shell finally decided to press ahead with launch plans for Star Trek.

On 14 December 1990, Norton and Wright got the order to print ready for 11 March 1991. Collect and Select was closed on 14 January 1991 and Shell stopped issuing points on 10 March.

Norton and Wright made its first delivery on 13 and 14 January 1991.

McNab is unwilling to reveal exactly how many cards were printed, although he does say it ran to “tens of millions’.

Soon after the 11 March launch, the advertising campaign began to roll out. 
It was confined to press and local radio. Agency Senior King handled the dealer campaign and set up 30 local radio competitions around the promotion.

Don Marketing says there have been over 1000 major prize winners. Although the promotion has been wound up, claims are still trickling in. As a final security measure, Don Marketing has recorded every single claim on video.


Star Trek was scheduled to run for ten weeks, in the event it ran for 12. Shell is currently running an Explore Britain promotion alongside its longer term Air Miles campaign and plans to launch a new promotion on 2 September.

McNab is unforthcoming about Star Trek’s impact on sales. “The promotion was very successful as a vehicle to take us through the closure of Collect and Select. What we’re doing now is the new world of promotions.”

As far as Don Marketing is concerned, Star Trek is the biggest promotional game it has ever produced for Shell UK. It hopes to sell the idea elsewhere.

Shell’s competitors think it won’t be too long before disillusionment sets in.

Sources at BP suggest that Shell will be returning to catalogues at the end of the year. BP claims to have looked closely at the market, but decided to stick with catalogues. It has just relaunched its catalogue to take it more upmarket.

A spokeswoman for Esso says it is happy with its catalogue scheme and has no plans to change. She admits she has heard rumours “outside the company” that Star Trek did not altogether impress. A BP insider says, “Shell has totally misread the market. Catalogues are here to stay.” In the cyclical world of promotions, Shell is probably well prepared for such criticism. 

Star Trek: the timetable 
12 July 1990 Don Marketing clinches licensing deal 
13July 1990 Don Marketing presents its idea to Shell 
Summer 1990 Shell accepts: total budget £4.Sm 
Summer 1990 2,I50 Shell retailers accept StarTrek 
August 1990 Gulf crisis puts printing plans on hold 
14 December 1990 Norton and Wright get the go-ahead 
11 March 1991 Star Trek is launched

Picture Captions
Donovan: his brief was to be flexible and topical where other oil companies were not
Poster art: Shell retailers plugged the game


This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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