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Chains tout taste test victories in competitive marketing campaigns

Chains tout taste test victories in competitive marketing campaigns

As cash-strapped diners clamor for meal deals, they still crave quality, so restaurant chains intent on proving their products’ superiority are promoting the results of taste tests in new marketing campaigns.

Dunkin’ Donuts is touting the taste of its coffee as it seeks to expand westward and take on Starbucks Coffee head-to-head in new markets. Meanwhile, Domino’s Pizza is boasting about its new oven-baked sandwiches to steal customers away from Subway.

The fact that Subway and Starbucks are leaders in their categories works to the advantage of Domino’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, according to marketing authorities.

“When you go against the leaders, it gets attention,” said Arjun Sen, president of Restaurant Marketing Group in Centennial, Colo.

Such chains as Quiznos, Church’s Chicken, Burger King and McDonald’s have promoted their victories in taste tests of some form to focus on product quality as the factor that differentiates them from competitors.

Last year, Pizza Hut ran a full-page ad in USA Today saying its reformulated hand-tossed-style crust beat similar products from Domino’s and Papa John’s Pizza in blind taste test.

Marketing experts say taste tests are particularly helpful when a brand introduces a new product or enters a new market.

Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Donuts has nearly 8,000 units worldwide, but it operates in only 35 percent of the United States. To pave the way for U.S. growth and convince consumers that it’s more than a doughnut shop, the chain launched a TV campaign and online microsite in late October to brag about beating Starbucks in a taste test.

A&G Research conducted the test during May and June in 10 major U.S. cities, including Starbucks’ home turf of Seattle. Of all survey participants, 54.2 percent said they preferred Dunkin’ Donuts’ Original Blend to Starbucks’ House Blend, 39.3 percent favored Starbucks, and 6.3 percent had no preference.

A TV campaign promoting the test results depicts a survey taker asking people in various lines of work which coffee they prefer. The pollster puts a check mark in the Dunkin’ Donuts box every time.

A microsite at offers information about the chain’s coffee.

As Dunkin’ Donuts expands west, it wants to influence the purchases of “people that haven’t had the opportunity to taste or think of us as a coffee place,” said Frances Allen, brand marketing officer for the wholly franchised chain. “‘Donuts’ is in our name, but our heritage is coffee and doughnuts. Driving the coffee message home is important.”

Dunkin’ Donuts has a nearly 98-percent brand awareness throughout the country, but consumers where the chain doesn’t operate don’t necessarily understand what its product line is, she said.

Domino’s Pizza introduced a line of four oven-baked sandwiches in late September and said the Philly Cheese Steak and Italian varieties scored better than comparable sandwiches from Subway in a taste test conducted by NBC Channel 4 in Washington, D.C.

Out of the 75 consumers who sampled the sandwiches, 64 said they preferred Domino’s version. Among the 29 consumers who tried the Italian subs from both chains, 22 said Domino’s was better.

The TV station ran a report on the taste test, and Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s, which has nearly 9,000 units worldwide, went after Subway in a TV spot that shows a Domino’s employee delivering an oven-baked sandwich to a worker at a “Sub-Mart,” a name written in a typeface similar to Subway’s logo.

Playing up taste test results in marketing campaigns works best when introducing a new product, marketing consultant Sen said.

But chains must be aware that taste tests may not go beyond stimulating an initial visit, he said.

“It gives them one trial,” Sen said. “That’s all this will do.”

Promoting taste tests can sway some consumers to buy the product, but “nothing influences anybody 100 percent,” said marketing consultant Raymond L. Coen of Pacific Palisades, Calif. “Some people will be influenced to at least give it a try. If [the consumer] doesn’t buy it again, the world won’t collapse.”

Nor does a brand have to worry about losing customers forever if they think the ballyhooed product isn’t as good as promised, Coen said.

“People have two or three brand favorites,” he said, but a single brand “is not the favorite for everything.”

Both Sen and Coen cautioned that ad claims made as a result of taste tests have to follow strict legal guidelines. All research and internal communication that support the claim should be shared with everyone involved if the claim is challenged, Sen said.

Dunkin’ Donuts’ Allen said the chain has won taste tests sponsored by third parties, but it never used the results in ads because the chain couldn’t verify how the tests were conducted.

Coen cited what could happen if a brand skirts that guideline.

“The only danger is, you’d better have made it an honest, defensible test,” he said, “or your competitor will own your company.”

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