Restaurant chains with the most influential commercials in the third quarter did not stray too far from talking up their low price points as they competed across segments and dayparts in a slow economy, according to a new study from Ace Metrix.
The marketing research firm ranked restaurant brands’ advertisements by its proprietary Ace Score, which measures a commercial’s persuasiveness and "watchability," and found that LongHorn Steakhouse and KFC had the top-scoring commercials in their respective casual-dining and quick-service categories.
The average Ace Score for all advertisers in all categories was 507 out of a possible 950 during the quarter, and the casual-dining and quick-service sectors both had norms that exceeded the overall figure, at 573 and 544, respectively.
Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president of marketing for Ace Metrix, said the restaurant industry’s constant fight for the same customers across quick service, fast casual and casual dining was reflected in brands’ TV commercials, particularly for casual-dining chains. Because dinnerhouse brands are trying to prevent guests trading down to fast casual and to gain market share at lunch, “they’re using everything in their portfolio” to pack value price points and appealing food shots into every spot, he said.
LongHorn's "You Decide" ad generated the highest Ace Score in Q3
Of the 10 highest-scoring ads in Ace Metrix’s casual-dining category, only one commercial for IHOP’s Belgian waffles did not contain a price point.
Quick-service brands, on the other hand, had broader advertising strategies in play during the third quarter. Many of the top-scoring commercials were for new-product news, some without even mentioning price, and the quick-service brands took more chances with humor in their ads than casual-dining chains did.
However, even if value was de-emphasized in some spots, those commercials still had a price point, especially among the big three pizza chains, which had six of the 10 highest Ace Scores for quick service during the quarter.
LongHorn leads casual-dining brands
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“From a creative perspective, the recipe for casual dining has remained consistent,” Symonds said. “What’s relatively different in the past few quarters has been the emphasis on value messages, consistent with price pressure they see from fast casual and a limited-recovery mode in the economy.”
LongHorn Steakhouse had the highest Ace Score of the quarter at 636 out of a possible 950. The 30-second commercial highlighted entrée after entrée before adding a five-second tag about its $7.99 Steakhouse Lunch Combos.
T.G.I. Friday’s finished just behind with an Ace Score of 635 for a 15-second spot about its Pick 2 for $10 offer. The ad combined the aggressive price point with the same kind of food photography that LongHorn’s ad featured, right down to the opening shot of steak being pulled off the grill.
An ad for T.G.I. Friday's "Pick 2 for $10" offer scored just behind LongHorn
High Ace Scores for commercials do not always translate into sales growth, Symonds conceded. Ruby Tuesday, for instance, had the third-, fourth- and sixth-highest Ace Scores of the third quarter at 631, 626 and 618 for spots advertising its Taste of the Islands menu, pretzel cheeseburgers and crispy flatbreads, respectively.
But the chain reported same-store sales declines  of 11.4 percent at company-owned restaurants and 8.4 percent at franchised locations in its fiscal 2014 first quarter.
Symonds noted that Ruby Tuesday’s well-liked commercials are one part of its years-long plan to rebrand itself as an upscale-casual chain and that succeeding in marketing, operations and menu development simultaneously in an effort like that takes time.
“From an advertising perspective, we’re seeing more and more Ruby Tuesday commercials higher on our lists, which reflects a growing customer consideration of them as an upscale-dining experience,” he said. “But that’s a little tough place to be right now, because the economy didn’t rebound like we expected it to five or six years out from the recession.”
Another dinnerhouse struggling recently to build same-store sales, Red Lobster , also had several ads place in Ace Metrix’s top 10 list for the third quarter. The commercials continued Red Lobster’s “Sea Food Differently” campaign that feature real team members, like a culinary manager and an Alaskan fisherman who supplies the chain with crab. The ads had Ace Scores of 618 and 617, which tied for the No. 6 and No. 8 spots on the list, respectively.
“The reason ‘Sea Food Differently’ doesn’t get stale for Red Lobster is because it’s been consistent and is so authentic to the brand,” Symonds said. “Since they did their brand relaunch a few years ago, they’ve remained committed to that, and consumers feel it’s authentic, which comes through in the advertising.”
KFC tops QSR list
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In the quick-service category, KFC had the highest Ace Score in the quarter at 615 out of 950. The 30-second spot for the new KFC Go Cups featured two police officers trying the new product in their squad car, and when a call comes over their radio for help on a crime in progress, the grizzled old veteran tells the eager rookie to pursue the situation alone. Then he eats his partner’s KFC Go Cup.
Symonds noted that 14 percent of survey respondents described KFC’s ad as funny, but overall a commercial’s humor does not often correlate to how well it breaks through with viewers.
“The relationship between funny and the Ace Score is really nonexistent,” he said. “You can make a good commercial that’s funny, but you could just as easily make a very mediocre ad that’s very funny.”
KFC's ad for the KFC Go Cup had the highest QSR Ace Score
Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza and Papa John’s Pizza dominated the rest of the top 10 list for the category.
Pizza Hut had the second-, third- and 10th-highest Ace Scores of 614, 613 and 590, respectively, all for aggressive value offers. The brand promoted its $6.55 Anniversary Deal, Big Dinner Box and $10 any-size pizza deal during the quarter.
Domino’s had the No. 9 Ace Score of 591 for its commercial promoting online ordering, a major area of focus for all three pizza chains and what they describe as their biggest competitive advantage over the rest of the pizza brands. The spot ended with a short tag for its $5.99 medium-pizza offer.
Papa John’s also used its commercials in the third quarter to promote brand news. Its early-August commercial, which had an Ace Score of 610 to tie Subway for the No. 4 spot, announced that Papa John’s once again had won the top rating in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which led to the chain running a half-off “thank you” offer online.
Another Papa John’s spot promoting its pizza cookie dessert tied with Arby’s for the No. 6 ranking, with an Ace Score of 596. That commercial debuted in September, as did six of the other ads in the top 10.
Symonds said that timing is no coincidence. “This is a big seasonal time for pizza and other restaurants, which is why you see more new creative,” he said. “It’s a good time to hit up the menu innovation element, because you have people back in front of their TV sets in a dedicated way for football or new shows starting in September. It’s an opportunity to reach a broader audience more quickly.”
Ace Metrix is based in Mountain View, Calif.