Gold Star Chili program builds brand by welcoming soldiers home

Gold Star Chili program builds brand by welcoming soldiers home

CINCINNATI Gold Star Chili [3]’s Memorial Day public-service announcements lasted all of five seconds. But officials say the image the spots used, a single piece of shredded cheese twisted to look like a yellow ribbon, didn’t need much more than that to make an impression for the Cincinnati-based chain’s “Serving Our Troops” program. —

The camera zooms out from the image to reveal that the yellow ribbon, a symbol associated with soldiers serving in war overseas, actually is a piece of cheese on Gold Star’s popular Cheese Coney. The voice-over encourages viewers to support the troops by visiting one of the chain’s 96 locations in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. —

Gold Star bought airtime for 200 PSAs over Memorial Day weekend to raise awareness for soldiers and the brand’s program for military families, said Mike Rohrkemper, chief executive of the chain specializing in Cincinnati-style chili. The campaign allows the family of any returning soldier to sign up for a free “Welcome Home Reception.” Gold Star reserves space at the restaurant for families to have their celebrations, and the company provides complimentary meals, a “Welcome Home” banner, and a cake and gift for the returning soldier. —

“The servicemen and -women and their families are in our neighborhoods,” said Rohrkemper, a Marine who served in the Vietnam War. “It raises our energy level here in corporate and in our franchisee community when we can do something like this for them. It’s not that big of a thing to provide them with a meal and a party, and they seem to appreciate it very much.” —

Rohrkemper said Gold Star built enough brand awareness with the program’s visibility that it could justify devoting marketing resources to a “loss leader” like the receptions. —

“We’re a largely franchised business, so we split a lot of the cost with our franchisees,” Rohrkemper said. “We’ve really focused much more of an effort on building our brand in the past 18 months. When we’ve got our products out there on large digital billboards, even when we’re supporting our troops, we’re also getting a boost for our brand.” —

So far, Gold Star has held parties for 70 returning soldiers and served more than 1,000 complimentary meals. The chain plans to prolong the program throughout the year and leave up in-store signage to maintain awareness beyond Memorial Day. —

“You saw the height of all that tier-one advertising on Memorial Day,” Rohrkemper said. “Normally, [our advertising is] more cost-effective: fliers, place mats and general word of mouth.” —

Gold Star’s advertising budget is nearly $3 million, he said, and the chain requires franchisees to contribute 4 percent of sales to an advertising fund. Cincinnati-based agencies Strata-G and Focus FGW handled the public relations and the creative, respectively. —

Gold Star’s “Serving Our Troops” program began in November 2005, Rohrkemper said. The chain also collected new and used DVDs in May 2007 and sent them to National Guard troops stationed in Kuwait, along with 2,000 pounds of Cincinnati-style chili, for the Fourth of July that year. The soldiers threw a “Dinner and a Movie” celebration and sent back a large “thank you” banner, Rohrkemper said. That banner hangs in Gold Star’s corporate office. — [email protected] [4]