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The return of taste-test marketing

Wendy’s, Arby’s, Domino’s and Popeyes take on their competition in TV ads

It’s not polite to gloat, but it does make for good ad campaigns, as demonstrated recently by several restaurant brands, including Arby’s, Wendy’s and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

Wendy’s and Popeyes are touting taste test wins over respective rivals McDonald’s and KFC, while Arby’s said Friday that it would promote its new chicken salad sandwich by asking customers to compare it to what’s offered at Subway.

Domino’s Pizza was among the first chains to start the taste-test resurgence, advertising its Oven Baked Subs as the choice preferred to Subway’s sandwiches in 2009. In commercials for that claim, then-CEO David Brandon burned a cease-and-desist letter from Subway. Domino’s executives famously got back in front of the camera next year in “Pizza Turnaround” commercials to promote the chain’s most important taste test: its new reformulated pizza versus the old version that repeatedly got panned in focus groups.

New commercials for Wendy’s point out the chain’s victory over McDonald’s in a French fry taste test, in which 56 percent of survey respondents said they preferred Wendy’s Natural Cut Fries with Sea Salt. Roland Smith, chief executive of Atlanta-based Wendy’s/Arby’s Group Inc., said the new ads would deliver a bigger benefit than short-term bragging rights.

View Wendy's commercial.

“In April, we promoted our new sea-salt fries,” Smith said during Wendy’s/Arby’s Group’s first-quarter earnings call. “McDonald’s fries had been considered the gold standard in QSR, so we believe this is a huge win that will pay dividends over the next several years.”

Smith added that stronger fry sales helped turn same-store sales positive in April, rising 0.5 percent at all North American corporate stores, including a 1.1-percent uptick in the United States.

At sister chain Arby’s, company officials are hoping to start a little friendly competition with Subway over chicken salad. Through May 22, the 3,600-unit Arby’s is offering a free Market Fresh Grilled Chicken & Pecan Salad Sandwich or Wrap with the purchase of a 22-ounce beverage. The chain then wants customers to visit its Facebook page and compare the sandwiches to the Subway Orchard Chicken Salad sub and vote for their favorite.

View Arby's online video.

Brian Kolodziej, the chain’s vice president of product development, said in a statement that the competition would benefit Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry Campaign. For every Facebook vote, Arby’s will donate $1 to the charity, up to $25,000.

Gary Stibel, founder and chief executive of Westport, Conn.-based New England Consulting Group, said comparative advertising can be effective when done well, especially when so many brands that are focused on emotional connection or entertainment value in their commercials miss the opportunity to deliver a competitive message.

He praised Wendy’s commercials touting a French fry taste-test win over McDonald’s, saying the ads draw a comparison with a quick-service standard of excellence.

“Wendy’s ads are very persuasive and deliver an important message most people don’t know, that their fries taste better than McDonald’s and presumably better than Burger King’s,” Stibel said. “It’s giving the consumer permission to believe it. They’re not just saying, ‘Trust me,’ because they’re advertising the fact that they have sea salt. It’s sorely needed right now, because McDonald’s is firing on all cylinders, and this is something to come back with.”

He noted, however, that viewers may still approach taste-test commercials with skepticism because consumers are much more savvy about the advertising process “and they’ve been lied to before.”

“Today, we’re marketing to marketers,” Stibel said. “Men and women have been to focus groups and know that even the president uses focus groups. They get it. Because they understand what’s going on, sure, they’re skeptical.”

That’s why Domino’s reality-focused campaign from 2010, in which it admitted that consumers didn’t like the taste of its old pizza recipe, worked so well, Stibel said.

“They compared themselves to themselves and bought credibility by saying their pizza was bad,” he said. “They then delivered with a product superior to what Domino’s pizza had been. Too much restaurant advertising is soft and warm and cuddly, and nobody remembers whom it’s for.”

Popeyes is seeking to remind customers of its previous “Love That Chicken” campaign from August 2010, when the nearly 2,000-unit chain’s Bonafide chicken beat KFC’s Original Recipe in a national taste test. To continue its celebration of that victory, Popeyes is running a buy-one-get-one promotion through May 29, offering a free two-piece dinner to any customer who orders a three-piece dinner.

“This BOGO offer is our way of further thanking our customers for loving our Popeyes chicken,” Dick Lynch, Popeyes’ chief marketing officer, said in a statement. “And for those that haven’t yet tried our Bonafide chicken, we invite you to do so and decide for yourself.”

Brands can keep their taste-test claims going for years if they find creative ways to refresh the idea, Stibel said. Too often, he said, marketers assume the message has become stale and put the marketing campaign on the shelf too early, such as Pepsi halting its “Pepsi Challenge” commercials after only a couple years during the “cola wars” in the ’80s.

“During its heyday, Burger King was making comparative claims against McDonald’s all the time, and their business boomed,” Stibel said. “Then, they tried to get too cute. They’ve done brilliant advertising, but they don’t stick to them long enough. ‘Whopper Freakout’ was brilliant, but then they took it off the air and replaced it.

“Advertising will always stale out quicker in the boardroom than it will in the living room or the dining room,” he added.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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