FORTUNE — “Freeeee cookie!” squeals a pedestrian, to no one in particular, after receiving one from a woman in a green DoubleTree t-shirt. The yelp-inducing giveaways in New York City’s Flatiron Plaza were part of the hotel chain’s so-called “little things project,” an outdoor marketing event this week involving a large tent, iPads, magnetic speech bubbles, and, of course, the cookies.
Hilton acquired DoubleTree — Marriott and Sheraton are among its main competitors — in 1999. But just a year ago the chain underwent a rebranding process, including a new logo and longer name: DoubleTree by Hilton. John Greenleaf, vice president of global brand marketing, claims that awareness of DoubleTree has doubled since the rebranding took place. DoubleTree opened 40 new hotels globally in 2011 and plans to open over 50 in 2012. (Hilton is owned by private equity giant Blackstone.)
The cookies, meanwhile, have been a staple of checking into a DoubleTree since the 1980s. The company is pushing to remind travelers that its staff gives out a warm cookie at check-in. “The cookies are just part of what we’re doing, bringing the return of the human touch to travel,” Greenleaf says.
A year ago, DoubleTree drove a food truck around the country, delivering free treats to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of its chocolate chip cookie. This time, an outdoor tent event kicked off in Manhattan but will continue across the country until November. The new campaign is centered around technology and social media, though it still has wheels. A Mini Cooper “swarm car” will deliver the “little thing” fans tweet to them. “We’re trying to take it more from just a street event to an integrated marketing effort,” Greenleaf explains.
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It was with some trepidation I approached the tent. Under the forest-like canvas bubble was: a check-in desk where you receive your cookie and $25 gift card toward a DoubleTree stay, lounge area, counter with iPads on which people can enter a contest, and in the middle of it all, something the company is calling the “tell-me tree.” Suspended in the tree, a small TV displays tweets using the #littlethings hashtag. There was also free wi-fi inside the tent.
A greeter explained, “We’re asking people to share with us the little things they like when they’re traveling!” I pointed out, “Well, you mean when I’m staying at a hotel.” She said, “No, anything relating to travel.” I played devil’s advocate: “But what if my little thing involves flying? You can’t help with that.” “Well,” she said, a bit aggrieved, “We can, uhm, do our best.”
I wrote down “I’d like less turbulence on flights.” She encouraged me to stick the magnetic speech bubble onto the side of the counter, which indeed was covered in responses: iPhone charger in the room, greet me with a smile, cold water bottle waiting. Carlisle Campbell, from PR-firm Ketchum, exclaimed: “People are loving this, and the answers have been everything from a softer pillow to free wi-fi to a hot flight attendant.”
Of course, your hotel can’t offer you a “hot flight attendant” because, well, it’s not an airline. What it can offer you is free wi-fi, but DoubleTree, for now, does not: it’s free in the lobby, in public spaces, and to its Honors club members, but not in rooms. After this whirlwind tour, with the vast majority of answers (both in-person and on Twitter) being requests for wi-fi, is it likely DoubleTree will begin offering it free in all rooms? Campbell would only say, “After the tour, we will definitely be assessing what people want and, perhaps, making changes.”
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To be fair, the point of a bonanza like this isn’t really to improve the hotels, but to announce to people that they exist. That part worked on Jakob Skjold-Jorgensen, 26, a tourist visiting New York from Denmark with his girlfriend. “Titte!” he yelled to her after ducking inside the tent, “Chocolate chip cookie!” Jakob guessed, “They’re probably trying to fetch new customers. The cookie is good.”
A cookie is indeed good, but it’s no guarantee it will lead someone to think, when they next book a trip, ‘Ah, I should stay at a DoubleTree, they have those nice cookies.” But maybe. And the $25 gift card is a more concrete enticement. 10,000 cookies prepared for the day were almost all gone by quitting time at 5 p.m. (Some 200 more were baked for delivery to the local Ronald McDonald House last night, which was the nearest DoubleTree hotel’s local charity of choice.)
In Who Cares Wins, a book about social media and corporate responsibility, Havas CEO David Jones posits that in the new marketing world of “radical transparency,” companies should remember that, “attention can no longer be bought. It must be earned.” Certainly on Wednesday DoubleTree earned the attention of pedestrians in the crowded Flatiron district. Michael Hu, visiting from Chicago, said, “This thing looked so weird I had to come check it out.”
But did it gamer attention on Twitter, the engine fueling this entire effort? Throughout the day, there were very few organic tweets about the #littlethings campaign that did not come from DoubleTree’s account or from PR people associated with the effort. In addition, #littlethings is a rather common hashtag across Twitter, used by people to express anything from how their day went to petty aggravations.
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And the “swarm car” didn’t have many deliveries to make, because it didn’t get many requests; it visited only three places. One was Twitter’s New York offices, another a woman from B&H Photo who requested banana bread pudding, and the third was the company FlightPath, where Denise de Castro’s tweet request was a big hit with hungry coworkers. “I didn’t know they were going to come in with a camera crew, though,” she says. “I don’t think it would make me more likely to stay at DoubleTree, because I usually go to higher-end hotels with four or five-star ratings.”
Ketchum’s Lauren Butler suggested the lack of demand for the swarm car was simply because the tour has just begun. And there was no lack of demand, in-person, for the cookies. Lee Gallagher, marketing director at Ricoh, former IBM consultant, and co-author of Precision Marketing, concludes that, “The social and viral aspect may be slick, but in my opinion, not relevant to moving the top line in gaining and attracting more business travelers to their brand.”
It’s hard for consumers not to like an event that hands them free food and a gift card, no matter how obvious and comprehensive the marketing effort behind it. Perhaps most compelling in the entire campaign is the centrality of Twitter. Greenleaf said, “I feel like a lot of our peer businesses use it because it’s a curiosity, but we use it to very seriously build a better experience.” And yet, he reveals, “It’s important to find a way to use Twitter well without making it look like you’re using it for such technical purposes.” There’s nothing less technical than a free cookie.