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Kruse/Thorn: Has restaurant trash talk gotten out of hand?

Recent ads by chains big and small throw shade at competitors

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they discuss a recent spate of trash-talking in restaurant ads.

NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn says restaurant marketing is getting too nasty for its own good.

Nancy, you sure are a stupid dumbface. How’s everything in the boring city of Atlanta? I bet you’re embarrassed to live there, huh?

Sorry. I don’t really think you’re a dumbface, and I think Atlanta is a fine city where anyone should be proud to live. Maybe I’ve just been subjected to too much mean-spirited marketing from restaurants.

There’s a lot of messaging out there that focuses on how other restaurants are bad rather than how the restaurants doing the marketing are good.

Toronto-based Freshii seems to be going out of its way to let people know that, contrary to the stereotype, not all Canadians are polite.

The 300-unit chain took out ads in the Chicago Tribune and Nation’s Restaurant News that were full-page open letters to Subway. The letters urged the Milford, Conn.-based sandwich giant, with some 44,000 restaurants worldwide, to let its franchisees convert their locations to Freshii, “rather than risking the closure of another 900 Subway stores in 2018,” the letter by Freshii CEO and founder Matthew Corrin said.

Corrin even had the gall to quote Subway’s late founder, Fred DeLuca, as saying, “As a business owner you’ll be in a constant race against an ever-improving marketplace.” 

Hi Subway, you suck. Let me quote your dead founder.

It’s true that Freshii is doing well and that Subway has been struggling with falling same-store sales, restaurant closures and franchisees pushing back against what they see as excessive discounting. But I fail to see how rubbing their noses in that makes Freshii look anything but obnoxious.

Similarly, Toppers Pizza, a chain based in Whitewater, Wis., with around 70 units, took the occasion of the Super Bowl to throw shade at its larger competitors. The chain has six restaurants within a half-hour drive of U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the game was played, sponsored by then NFL pizza sponsor Papa John’s. (That honor has since shifted to Pizza Hut, but that’s a different story.) Toppers gave free pizza to Uber and Lyft drivers in the area because, according to Toppers’ public relations firm, “The pioneer in doing delivery right wants to make sure that those delivering people around Minneapolis … [are] doing so with a belly full of quality pizza, and not the crap in a box from Papa John's, Domino's or Pizza Hut.”

Crap in a box, Nancy? That’s rude, especially considering that Toppers CEO Scott Gittrich worked for Domino’s in the 1980s and is an avowed admirer of the chain’s founder, Tom Monaghan.

Toppers didn’t mention anything about the quality of its own pizza, promoting instead its pioneering delivery which, considering the big pizza chains’ expertise in that department, is kind of rich.

The Super Bowl was an important moment for throwing shade. Wendy’s cast epic snark at McDonald’s, which has marketed its beef as “flash frozen to seal in fresh flavor.” McDonald’s has since moved away from that messaging and recently launched never-frozen beef in its Quarter Pounders, but Wendy’s wasn’t interested in that.

In a 30-second spot with no speaking — just music, written words and pictures of Wendy’s signature square beef patty being cooked and assembled into a sandwich — the Dublin, Ohio-based chain said of McDonald’s flash-frozen claim, “The iceberg that sank the Titanic was frozen, too (just sayin’). Anyway, we’re not fans.”

It later told viewers, “Skip the hamburgers at the Frozen Arches.”

Meanwhile, McDonald’s, which has roughly four times the annual domestic sales of Wendy’s, ran a Super Bowl ad evoking Americans’ love for Big Macs.

“Rediscover your love for the Big Mac and its special sauce,” it said, and took the time to promote the limited-time offers of a smaller Mac Jr. and a larger Grand Big Mac.

That commercial made me want a Big Mac. Wendy’s ad made me wonder why it was throwing shade at McDonald’s, which then led me to think about McDonald’s and made me want a Big Mac.

Burger King, which, like Wendy’s, had annual domestic sales of between $9-$10 billion in 2016, compared with McDonald’s $36.4 billion, has similarly been haranguing McDonald’s in its marketing for using flat-top griddles instead of Burger King’s flame broilers.

In January, Burger King simultaneously copied McDonald’s Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese by launching its own Double Quarter Pound King Sandwich, and offered its “deepest condolences to all the flat-top fried double quarter pound burgers out there. We’re flame grilling the competition.”

So they simultaneously copied and disrespected the Golden Arches.

Of course, there are clever and enjoyable ways to make fun of the competition. Taco Bell, in launching its Nacho Fries, with Mexican spices and cheese sauce, ran amusing videos indicating the chain’s previous lack of fries was due to a conspiracy on the part of the burger chains and “Big Fries,” which have “been riding the ketchup train for 50 years.”

There was even a brief shot of a clown, who gave a ketchup-dipped fry to the protagonist’s daughter, playing on pop culture’s obsession with clown phobia while also pointing an accusing finger at McDonald’s.

But it was funny, playful and not mean-spirited.

Not so Pei Wei, which recently introduced Wei Better Orange Chicken that the Irving, Texas-based chain of around 215 units said is “Wei better” (get it?) than the Orange Chicken that is a staple at 2,000-unit Panda Express. 

Why not just introduce your nice orange chicken at your own chain, (which, according to NRN Top 100 data had $365 million in annual domestic sales in 2016), and leave the larger chain ($2.9 billion in sales, thank you very much) out of it?

So what’s the deal, Nancy? Am I just a humorless fuddy-duddy who thinks everyone should be nice, or is restaurant marketing getting too nasty for its own good?

‘We know where nice guys finish’

Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse responds to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on snark in recent restaurant ads.  

Fuddy-duddy? No way. Humorless? Not you, Bret. But a little too wound up regarding comparative advertising? Well, yes, in this case I think perhaps you are overreacting a bit.

In order to respond to you intelligently, I conducted some in-depth research on the subject, which is to say that I Googled it and found that disparagement as a marketing tool dates back to at least 1910 in the United States. But the more recent initiative that opened the floodgates to waves of competitive sniping was doubtless the Pepsi Challenge, which launched in 1975.

I’m sure you’re aware of the details: Unsuspecting consumers were accosted in shopping malls and invited to do a blind taste test; more than half were shocked — shocked — to learn that they preferred Pepsi to Coca-Cola. The tasters included, importantly, hardcore Coke-aholics. Pepsi at the time was the No. 2 soft-drink brand behind the much larger Coke, a situation that neither taste testing nor intervening decades has reversed.

If, however, the ads did not succeed in propelling Pepsi to the top spot, they certainly generated tons of publicity and reams of research. Lots of business majors got their degrees by parsing their import and mining their hidden depths. Several studies concluded that competitive ads are much more likely to be launched by the underdog rather than by the category leader. Well, duh. Other analysts suggested that while the Pepsi program didn’t really move the sales needle all that much, it did goad Coca-Cola into a serious strategic gaff. The company countered the competitive salvo with the introduction of the ill-fated New Coke, whose sweeter flavor profile more closely approximated that of Pepsi and sent dedicated Coke drinkers off the deep end. The product was duly put out to pasture amid corporate mea culpas and promises never again to tinker with the Real Thing.

Pepsi’s audacious campaign also confirmed that contemporary Mad Men are masters of copycat creative. After the soft-drink maker threw down the comparative gauntlet, Avis jumped in to claim that it tries harder than Hertz, Miller Lite insisted that it tastes better and is less filling than Bud Light, and Verizon averred that it’s faster and more reliable than AT&T, and other competitive snark fests too numerous to mention have ensued.

The restaurant tactics that you call out actually represent the latest in a long line of ad grenades. They are also, I think, totally in tune with the zeitgeist. After all, while the hotly courted Millennial cohort is way too young to have been exposed to the Pepsi Challenge, the ease with which they take to tweeting and texting suggests how readily receptive they can be to cheeky, tweak-y messaging.

Furthermore, they’re accustomed to trash-talking sports heroes, and they have likely grown used to trash-talking politicians, whose tiresome barbs and institutionalized disrespect make Toppers “crap in a box” look sort of staid. As an aside, Bret, I have to tell you that I love the free-pizza-to-ride-share-drivers concept, another blast from the past century, when restaurants like The Palm would treat taxi drivers to a free meal. The idea was to make the eatery top of mind when visiting conventioneers asked their cabbie for a local restaurant recommendation; given how chit-chatty some of my Uber drivers have been, it’s no stretch to imagine them singing the praises of Toppers’ Loaded Tot-zza, the pizza replete with tater tots and bacon.

And as you admit, some comparative marketing is quite creative. My personal favorite came out of France two years ago, when McDonald’s, which then had more than 1,000 drive-thru locations in that country, put up a billboard directing hungry diners to Burger King, which had fewer than 20 at the time. Said billboard gave encyclopedic directions to the nearest BK, which was 160 miles away. Oh, but if you were really famished, a small companion sign directed you to the nearest McDonald’s, which was a mere 3 miles around the corner. It was an epic takedown, some truly superior shade with a really funny visual, and I smile every time I think about it.

The bottom line, Bret, is that we’re operating in an exceptionally challenging restaurant environment, when desperate times may call for desperate, or at least more aggressive, marketing measures. While you very nicely argue that “everyone should be nice,” unfortunately, we both know where nice guys finish.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected].

Update March 13, 2018: This story has been updated with the correct location of Pei Wei's headquarters.

TAGS: Sales Trends
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