NRN editor and restaurant marketing expert Jennings breaks down what you should be watching in the industry this week. Connect with her on the latest marketing trends and news at @livetodineout and [email protected].
Carl’s Jr. is on deck to become the first major U.S. quick-service chain to offer an All-Natural Burger, USA Today reported Tuesday.
The new burger, scheduled to debut systemwide on Dec. 17, will feature an “all natural” quarter-pound patty made with grass-fed, free-range beef that has been raised without added hormones, antibiotics or steroids.
Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s Carpinteria, Calif.-based parent CKE Restaurant Holdings Inc., said the move is a response to growing demand from consumers looking for “cleaner” food options.
“People, certainly Millennials, are more interested in counting chemicals than counting calories these days, so it will definitely become more prevalent,” Haley said.
Consumers want to eat more healthfully, but they still want indulgence, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry research firm Technomic Inc.
“The push and pull between healthfulness and indulgence makes an all-natural burger on trend,” Tristano said in a statement. “All-natural products also have a ‘health halo’ impact and often help consumers feel confident that they are getting a product better for them and from a source they can feel good about.”
The All-Natural Burger will be available as a single or double. It will be topped with vine-ripened tomatoes, red onion, lettuce, pickles, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, with all-natural Cheddar, another new ingredient for Carl’s Jr. The burger is served on one of the chain’s Fresh Baked Buns.
For an additional charge, customers can also request an all-natural patty in any of the other burgers on the menu.
The All-Natural Burger is also being tested at sister brand Hardee’s, which has a very similar menu and is more concentrated in the South and Midwest.
The new burger may represent the first step in a larger move toward natural products, Haley said. “We are looking at other ingredients on the menu that we may be able to make cleaner,” he said.
The move toward cleaner food is a trend, not a fad, Haley said. And customers are willing to pay more for food they can feel better about.
Priced at a recommended $4.69 for a single, the All-Natural Burger is slightly more expensive than the comparable signature Thickburger, which features a third-pound patty of Black Angus beef and is priced at a recommended $4.49.
Both items are significantly more expensive than Carl’s Jr.’s value-positioned Famous Star with Cheese, at $2.99.
Haley said consumers are used to seeing a premium price on organic and natural meat in grocery stores, so cost did not appear to be an issue in tests at roughly 12 units in Los Angeles.
“It was one of the best-scoring products we’ve ever tested,” Haley said.
One challenge in offering all-natural beef is the lack of supply from within the U.S., Haley said. As a result, Carl’s Jr.’s new burger will use beef from Australia, where Haley said there is greater availability.
“A lot of beef in Australia is raised in open pasture, where they are grass fed, and a lot of U.S. beef is raised in a different manner,” he said.
Fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has long touted its meat raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, has also experienced this problem.
Earlier this year, Chipotle said it may be forced to source beef from Australia because of the lack of American-produced meat that meet the chain’s standards. That move drew some heat from the Texas Agriculture commissioner.
The shortage of supply in the U.S. has also likely prevented another major chain from offering all-natural burgers, though a growing number of small regional chains have offered grass-fed, organic and no-added-hormone meat, including Shake Shack, Burger Lounge, Elevation Burger, Good Times Burgers and Bareburger.
A different marketing approach
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While Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are known for their use of sexy supermodels in marketing, this burger’s ad campaign will require a different approach, Haley said.
“We think this product is so distinctive, at least for a major fast-food chain, that we’re handling it a little differently in our communications,” he said.
An advertising campaign created by Los Angeles and Amsterdam-based creative agency 72andSunny is coming, though Haley said the first TV spot isn’t finished yet. It’s scheduled to begin airing on Dec. 29, with more ads to follow in February during a “super big football game many will be watching.”
The initial ad, titled “Speaks for Itself,” is expected to be less about cleavage and more about food.
“It will be a very food-focused spot, and it kind of had to be, because there are things that are special about this burger that required a heavy communications burden for an ad,” Haley said. “It’s free-range, grass-fed beef with no added hormones, steroids and antibiotics and that’s actually a complicated message to get across in a 30-second ad.”
The ad is also likely to include what Haley described as “a cool song,” one that’s moving up the pop charts and was performed at the American Music Awards. He couldn’t reveal the song or artist, but he said, “It will help increase the buzz factor.”
The campaign will also have radio, social media and digital components. After Jan. 1, the chain is planning some more “experiential” moves and partnerships with online and digital properties. “We’re going a little deeper,” Haley said.
Chipotle has also taken its better-food message into new channels, hosting Cultivate Festivals, sponsoring short films, gaming apps and satirical Web programming — all of which address the very complex issue of food production without necessarily screaming about the chain’s menu.
CKE, however, also knows a thing or two about entertainment, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the company walk a similar path.
Recently, fast-casual chain Noodles & Company also added to its natural meat lineup with the roll out of antibiotic-free and vegetarian-fed chicken in its home state of Colorado.
In the competitive fast-casual space where Noodles and Chipotle live, a focus on ingredients is vital for survival. Soon, that may also be true in the quick-service world too.
Hopefully, suppliers are paying attention.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: Dec. 10, 2014 An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that ads for the All-Natural Burger would feature supermodel Elle Macpherson.