Tim Hortons is modernizing its iconic Roll up the Rim contest as it faces ongoing challenges, 35 years after the marketing initiative was launched.

The coffee-and-doughnut chain announced plans last May to revamp the contest amid sagging sales and backlash from environmentalists over its disposable cups.

At the time, then-Tim Hortons President Alex Macedo told BNN Bloomberg the contest was “losing a little bit of steam in its ability to drive excitement and traffic.”

The chain is still struggling with its performance today, with sales at stores open for more than one year having declined 4.3 per cent in the latest quarter.  In Canada, the declines were even more substantial, with sales having fallen 4.6 per cent.

"Given the recent financial results, they cannot get this wrong," Sylvain Charlebois, senior director of Dalhousie University's Agri-food Analytics Lab, told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview.

Charlebois added he thinks Tim Hortons’s decision to implement the digital Roll up the Rim contest is "long overdue." 

"It's the most successful promotion in Canadian history, I can't think of any other in the food industry," he said. "But it hasn't aged well because it's so dependent on the physicality of the campaign."

For the first two weeks of the four-week contest, which will run March 11 to April 7, customers will still be able to purchase physical cups in participating stores. After that, customers will only be able to participate through the Tim Hortons app or online.

“We will reward guests who make the sustainable choice by using a reusable cup and scanning their Tims Rewards card with three digital rolls,” Tim Hortons Chief Marketing Officer, Hope Bagozzi, said in a release Wednesday.

The company also plans to retire “Please Play Again.” Instead, guests who do not win a prize will be entered into one of four $100,000 draws.​

Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, said the company must maintain its human-to-human connection with customers as Roll up the Rim enters the digital space. 

"Pure digital connections are not a community," he said in a phone interview. "No matter how good the digital world is, make sure it ties to how people are greeted online or in person. It can't take away the essence of what makes Tims Canadian,” he said.

"It isn't just the coffee, it's the sense of family." 

With files from Hilary Punchard