Restaurant chains already have tried to bring their brands closer to customers by getting them involved in consumer-created ads, and now more chains are trying to forge even stronger relationships with diners by asking them to create new menu items.
Wendy’s  and Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill  this month were the latest to launch contests that ask customers to develop recipes for dishes that would be offered for at least a limited time on their menus. Both chains are looking for new burgers.
Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Spirits  already is selling a customer-created item called Montgomery’s Spicy Asian Burger, developed by the winner of the casual-dining chain’s “The Next Gourmet Burger Kids Contest.”
Dairy Queen  created the Cotton Candy Blizzard treat in 2003 from ideas it received from a panel of 8- to 12-year-old kids, and Friendly Ice Cream Corp.’s “Fab 50” kids’ committee helps the Friendly’s  chain develop new products.
“I think this is a new marketing trend,” said Jerry McVety, president of McVety & Associates Inc., a foodservice and restaurant consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich. “This is more than just advertising. This brings the product closer—literally—to the consumers.”
It’s also a creative twist on standard promotions, which is useful when a brand is trying to differentiate itself from competitors, he said.
“In this day and age, you have to look for a new schtick,” McVety said.
Wendy’s has launched a 25-city “taste tour” in North America and debuted a special website as it seeks customer-inspired flavor profiles for a new burger.
Consumers who visit the site can choose from 54 ingredients, 13 cheeses and 20 condiments in an interactive online session during which contestants graphically construct their ideal burger or other kind of sandwich—pulled pork is an option by itself or as a burger topping—for the “Build Wendy’s New Burger” contest. The winner will receive $25,000, and his or her burger has a chance to become part of the Wendy’s menu.
The promotion, which includes several other online components, is a strategic milestone for Wendy’s because it will “give thousands of consumers the opportunity to more deeply interact with our brand and personalize their Wendy’s experience,” said Ian Rowden, chief marketing officer for the Dublin, Ohio-based chain, which has more than 6,600 units.
The nearly 2,000-unit Applebee’s, based in Overland Park, Kan., wants consumers to compete in its “Big Burger Showdown” contest and create a burger that the chain will add to its menu next year. The winner also will receive $5,000.
The contest is part of the chain’s multiplatform campaign with the Food Network , whose website is the online portal for Showdown contestants. The winning burger will be chosen by chef Tyler Florence, a Food Network star and an Applebee’s ad spokesman who has created exclusive menu items for the chain.
Although chains that seek newproduct ideas from consumers view their efforts as brand-building and sales-boosting tactics, marketing consultant and educator Len Kornblau sees a downside.
“I think it points to perhaps some weakness in product development, and in advertising and marketing,” Kornblau said, “because it says, ‘Our product-development people are not coming up with new ideas or new ideas that people are interested in.’ ”
Yet Kornblau acknowledged that consumers would enjoy creating a burger and basking in “their 15 minutes of fame” by seeing it featured on the menu. And the local restaurant could enjoy some good publicity when the winner brings friends and neighbors along to try the burger, he said. And since restaurants are trying to get diners to eat out more often, they might as well serve food made with recipes that consumers have enjoyed at home, Kornblau said.
Inviting customers to create a menu item is like hosting a “restaurant reality show” that gets them engaged in the brand, said Kim McBee, vice president of marketing for Red Robin Gourmet Burgers Inc. , based in Greenwood Village , Colo.
The 350-unit chain’s burger contest earlier this year attracted more than 16,000 entries and revealed a lot of food trends that the chain’s research and development department could use for creating other new products, she said.
“We saw everything you can think of,” McBee said, including burgers with Greek, Mexican and Italian flavor profiles as well as a macaroni-and-cheese burger.
The grand-prize-winning burger, named for its 9-year-old creator Adrianna Montgomery, contains hamburger, teriyaki sauce, Napa cabbage, sesame seeds and creamy ginger-wasabi sauce. It will be on the menu through July 15 and will be a featured offering in all Red Robin restaurants.
The contest also has an altruistic side. Fifty-six contest recipes are included in a cookbook that Red Robin is selling to benefit the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
The benefit to Red Robin is that the winners will always remember Red Robin, McBee said, and “we’re looking to get them as customers for the rest of their lives.”
Whether a customer-inspired menu item will be accepted by other consumers remains the obvious question. Minneapolis-based Dairy Queen learned the answer when the Cotton Candy Blizzard, developed with help of the chain’s kids’ panel, became a “cult favorite” and went from being a limited-time treat to a permanent menu item, said Michael Keller, chief brand officer for International Dairy Queen, which is franchisor or operator of more than 5,600 units in the United States and abroad.
“People just can’t get enough of it,” he said, noting that it would be a Blizzard of the Month in the third quarter.
The panel helped Dairy Queen develop new products for the so-called “tween” market for about a year or two, but the chain has changed its strategic approach to that segment and the panel no longer exists, Keller said.
“We really enjoyed it and I feel like we benefited from it,” he said. “First and foremost we got very valuable feedback on product concepts. Another valuable thing was to sit in a room and listen to how a target market talks and how they behave.”
Now Dairy Queen uses a panel of 5,000 members of its Blizzard Fan Club to screen ideas not only for new Blizzard treats but also for other menu items. That helps Dairy Queen “winnow product ideas to a focused and workable” amount, Keller said.
“We leverage this panel the way we used to leverage quantitative product-screening research,” he said.
The panel screened the idea for the Kit Kat Blizzard before Dairy Queen launched it, he said.
The chain chose fan club members for the panel because they are fiercely brand-loyal and have good ideas about the products Dairy Queen should launch, Keller said.