Wall Drug: Giving first since 1936

An old marketing strategy is new again

“Hey, this free ice water is a great idea,” said a salesman, sidling up onto a stool. “How about selling me an ice cream cone?” This quote from the Wall Drug site embodies the effect of a #GiveFirst advertising campaign.

On a recent trip through South Dakota, I noticed that Wall Drug, the famous 76,000 square-foot store and restaurant complex, began using today’s marketing concept of giving first in 1936. At that time, the struggling drug store decided to attract passing drivers by offering free ice water during a hot summer. Outdoor billboards announced the offer and the campaign was a big success because grateful prospects would make purchases.

Dorothy Hulstead, the wife of a druggist, identified a critical pain point of their prospects: “Well, now what is it that those travelers really want after driving across that hot prairie? They’re thirsty. They want water. Ice cold water! Now, we’ve got plenty of ice and water. Why don’t we put up signs on the highway telling people to come here for free ice water?”

The combination of accurately identifying a need, crafting an offer and presenting it so successfully to the target marketplace prompted South Dakota’s Governor Bill Janklow, on druggist Ted Hustead’s death to commemorate him as “a guy that figured out that free ice water could turn you into a phenomenal success in the middle of a semi-arid desert way out in the middle of someplace.”

It’s interesting to note that 88 years ago, a South Dakota drug store realized what marketers embrace today: the realization that consumers respond positively to sellers willing to give freely, whether the gift is education, goods, services or ice.

To this day, Wall Drug still offers free ice water as well as a 5-cent cup of coffee. Driving I-90 in South Dakota, I lost count of the number of billboards posted across 500 miles, but noted how messaging addressed a variety of offers, including free ice and a nickel coffee.

A 5-cent cup of coffee represents a "give first" philosophy that drives commerce today.
My cup of 5-cent coffee at the Wall Drug in South Dakota, famous for its Burma Shave-like outdoor billboards.

In concert with today’s mantra to give first, by helping everyone without expectation of return, Wall Drug entertains 2,000,000 visitors per year. The hashtag #givefirst reflects the approach to attract not only customers, but also to potential non-prospect referrers, influencers, or affiliates in social media as well as partners, in the way that Techstars, the Boulder technology accelerator, and others in software act in an effort to “lift all boats” in the startup mode.

 So if you find yourself driving your motorcycle to Sturgis, exploring Deadwood, the Badlands or Jewel Cave, wonderful museums in Rapid City or at Ellsworth Air Force Base, make sure to stop in Wall and get a cup of coffee. Browse an amazing Western art exhibit of over 300 pieces in its warm dining rooms and the shops of Western jewelry, clothing and souvenirs.

Learn more at WallDrug.com.

Photo of Wall Drug's original storefront in Wall, S.D.
From an average storefront to 76,000 square-feet today, Wall Drug attracts 2,000,000 visitors a year.


See bio at dmcenter.com/about or linkedin.com/in/jancarroza.