Ace Metrix has named five casual-dining brands and five quick-service chains as some of the most effective advertisers of 2013, and those restaurants are in the running for the category’s “brand of the year” distinction, based on the firm’s proprietary television advertising analytics.
In early January, the brands with the highest “Ace Score,” which Ace Metrix calculates from consumers’ ratings of how watchable and persuasive TV commercials are, will be announced among several finalists: IHOP, LongHorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and TGI Fridays in casual dining, and Baskin-Robbins, Dairy Queen, Domino’s Pizza, Panera Bread and Pizza Hut in quick service.
The 10 brands that made the watch list for Ace Metrix’s “brand of the year” differentiated themselves from competitors with their own takes on their offerings, but also remained consistent throughout the year in their messaging, said Jonathan Symonds, the Mountain View, Calif.-based research firm’s executive vice president of marketing.
“There is not one recipe that works for all these guys, but within brands they’re highly consistent to their strategy,” Symonds said. “They’ve all had subtle shifts.”
As it has in Ace Metrix’s previous annual and quarterly studies, the casual-dining segment scored higher on average than the quick-service sector in the firm’s data collected through Nov. 15. Casual dining as a segment reported an average Ace Score of 581 out of a possible 950, compared with the quick-service average of 541.
Both segments outperformed the overall average Ace Score of 516 for all ads in all 20 industry categories that Ace Metrix tracks, Symonds noted. He highlighted the strategies of each brand in alphabetical order.
Darden's brands lead casual dining
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IHOP: “We were surprised to see IHOP on the year-end list,” Symonds said, “but we can clearly see that they got there by using customer testimonials [in their commercials].”
He noted that IHOP’s success in Ace Metrix’s study coincided with positive same-store sales, which rose 1.7 percent for the brand through the first nine months of fiscal 2013.
“In a category that has struggled in sales and in its perception in the stock market, IHOP was a bright spot and scored well each time,” Symonds said.
LongHorn Steakhouse: The steakhouse chain, one of three brands on the watch list owned by Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc., “understood that when you’re selling steak, you don’t have to sell ambience or deals,” Symonds said. “They sell steak, steak and more steak.”
LongHorn did mix in some commercials for its lunch daypart, where it often advertised lower prices around $15, but primarily the chain’s strategy was to emphasize food shots of its entrée steaks, Symonds noted. He added that LongHorn led all brands in a separate component measure for “desire,” or the rate at which surveyed consumers indicate that the commercial made them hungry for the product.
“The power of steak is not lost on the consumer,” he said.
Olive Garden: Darden’s flagship Italian dinnerhouse chain stuck with a strategy that was more deal-focused than its commercials had been in previous years, Symonds noted.
“While LongHorn tacks a mention of a deal at the end of its ads, Olive Garden has come deal-first and then tacks on food shots and people,” he said. “They’re stepping a little outside their bounds.”
The ads that performed the best for Olive Garden throughout 2013 dealt with new menu news that broke for the brand’s routine, like spots for its Lighter Fare menu, a standout in the first quarter , and commercials for its new Italiano Burger  at lunch. Meanwhile, ads for the Never Ending Pasta Bowl “lost a little of their luster,” Symonds said.
Olive Garden was No. 1 in the component measure for “relevance,” due probably to its system size of more than 830 units and heavy advertising spending, he said.
Red Lobster: Darden’s third large chain, Red Lobster, “showed a little more diversity, from deals like CrabFest and LobsterFest that are promotional in nature, to ads where they speak to the supply chain,” Symonds said. “Those ads do well.”
Red Lobster’s sales and traffic have struggled for much of the year, and Darden said Dec. 19 that it would seek a spinoff or sale of the seafood brand .
Advertising effectiveness and sales performance do not always correlate, Symonds conceded, complimenting Red Lobster’s ability to perform well in Ace Metrix’s studies all year with several creative strategies.
“It’s hard to characterize their advertising as one thing over the other,” he said. “But when they’ve gone to the testimonial approach with their line cooks or suppliers, those ads have worked very well.”
TGI Fridays: Fridays, another brand potentially on the sale block , was a new entrant to the brand of the year watch list in 2013, Symonds noted.
“That’s been driven by one thing alone: Jack Daniel’s,” he said. “All the ads called out the Jack Daniel’s menu and mentioned Fridays’ $10 deal. It was a very consistent, good message.”
Fridays finished right behind LongHorn in the component measure for “attention,” which tracked the extent to which ads grabbed consumers’ attention and broke through the clutter.
Treat chains stand out in QSR
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Baskin-Robbins: The ice cream chain owned by Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Brands scored consistently well with new commercials in 2013, Symonds said.
“They rolled out a campaign that was highly visual,” he said. “It was visually arresting and full of imagery around the ice cream, usually with holiday promotions like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.”
Baskin-Robbins had the highest component measure for attention of any brand in quick service, he added.
Dairy Queen: “With Dairy Queen, it’s really all about the Blizzard, the same way TGI Fridays was all about Jack Daniel’s,” Symonds said. “These are ‘anthem’ ads, which speak to the Blizzard as the ultimate representation of what Dairy Queen is.”
Dairy Queen’s advertisements are actually split between “burger” and “other QSR” subcategories, the latter of which produced the most effective ads in 2013, Symonds added. Dairy Queen’s Ace Scores for three “burger” ads under the new slogan, “It’s fan food, not fast food,” were “good, not great,” he said.
Pizza brands also make an impact
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Domino’s Pizza: Symonds said Domino’s Pizza’s strategy was more interesting for the variability of messages it took in 2013, from quality-focused ads with chief executive Patrick Doyle to more straightforward spots for a $5.99 deal, or more counterintuitive ads later in the year.
“Domino’s did well with the variety of different approaches, which is more unique in QSR,” Symonds said. “They’re also telling people they slow down the process for Handmade Pan Pizza, the ‘powered by pizza’ commercials aimed at startup companies, and the technology play where they’re talking about online ordering.”
Panera Bread: The fast-casual bakery-café chain also was effective in the “anthem” approach of touting its brand positioning and what it stands for in TV commercials, Symonds said.
“Each and every time Panera ran a ‘Live consciously, eat deliciously’ ad, it was about how they approach the business and what that led to from a menu perspective,” Symonds said. “Chipotle Mexican Grill doesn’t make this list, based on volume of advertising, but Panera and Dairy Queen to a lesser extent follow that mold of [values-based advertising].”
More product-focused commercials for the chain’s pastas also performed well, he added.
Pizza Hut: Pizza Hut had a noticeable year for maintaining high Ace Scores, even when a midyear switch from The Martin Agency to McGarrybowen as its agency of record brought about new creative, Symonds said.
The first commercials under the new agency, advertising 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza , performed well, Symonds noted.
“The ads are all about showcasing individuals’ boldness and individuality, overstuffing a dryer or overstuffing a turkey to talk about Stuffed Crust Pizza,” he said. “It was a big shift from this very rigid formula earlier in the year that was just deal-based but tried to insert menu innovation. … Consumers may take time to adjust to a change in creative, but if it is something they relate to, they’ll jump right on board.”
Pizza Hut had the highest component measure in quick service for “relevance,” which, like Olive Garden, probably resulted from being the largest chain in its category and a heavy advertiser, Symonds said.