Skip navigation

3 restaurant advertising encores

Marketing experts analyze ads that resurrect elements of successful past campaigns from Little Caesars, Wendy’s and Sonic

If new TV commercials from Little Caesars, Wendy’s and Sonic feel familiar, then those restaurant chains have succeeded in leveraging either nostalgia or more recent equity from effective ads to create marketing campaigns that stand out, experts said.

Each of the brands has chosen to reprise different elements from previous campaigns: Little Caesars this week brought back its “Pizza! Pizza!” tagline and cartoon character; Wendy’s reused its “Where’s the Beef?” slogan and called upon Wendy Thomas to put her family back in focus; and Sonic rehired its two “spokesdudes,” T.J. and Pete, for a new round of humorous commercials.

The chains are hoping to spur a second round of sales success with these campaigns. Restaurant marketing expert Dan Dahlen said the correct adage for this trend is not necessarily “what’s old is new again,” but rather, “what’s worked before will work again.”

“What many brands are doing now is taking a look at their historical performance, seeing the peaks and valleys in sales, and asking, ‘When sales spiked here, what did we have on the air?’” said Dahlen, former marketing executive at Wendy’s and Shoney’s, and founder of Columbus, Ohio-based Dahlen Communications.

He added that many successful ad campaigns end their run too soon because of “boardroom wear-out,” when chain executives and franchisees get tired of the creative long before customers do. “There’s a perception, driven internally or by the ad agency, that we need to get fresh copy on the air — but what’s running still has plenty of firepower," explained Dahlen. "You need patience for success in the restaurant industry, and QSR just doesn’t have any of it.”

Dahlen and other marketing experts analyze the nostalgic ad campaigns from Little Caesars, Wendy’s and Sonic.

First: Little Caesars

Little Caesars: Second helping of “Pizza! Pizza!”


Slide show


Little Caesars names Dana Tilley VP of R&D

Little Caesars announced its first national television campaign in 15 years this week, going to market with two new commercials to advertise its $5 Hot-N-Ready and $8 3 Meat Treat pizzas. The ads end with a cartoon Caesar character saying the brand’s famous tagline, “Pizza! Pizza!” which used to advertise a two-pizza deal for one low price.

New York-based ad agency BFG 9000 won the Little Caesars account in May and developed the spots, which repurpose “Pizza! Pizza!” to be a branding tagline rather than a call to attention for a specific deal. Dahlen said the new marketing team at the brand and the agency were wise to try bringing back something that worked for Little Caesars years ago.

“The one thing that keeps popping up is an asset that you don’t want to turn your back on,” Dahlen said. “It’s associated with the brand and is a moniker they can own and leverage. It’s smart to attach it to the end of all their work to create consistency and rekindle what people thought of Little Caesars in their heyday, when they were really rocking and rolling.”

Tim Nelson, president of Chicago-based ad agency Tris3ct, noted that Little Caesars’ spots, while humorous and sure to hit the value focus, currently do not promote what could be the chain’s biggest competitive advantage: convenience. “The idea that you could just drive to a Little Caesars and pick the pizza up [with no waiting] is a completely different proposition,” he said. “In the spots right now, it’s not quite clear why Little Caesars is the right choice, other than its price.”

Next: Wendy's

Wendy’s: A familiar face and tagline


Wendy’s reunion with the chain’s founding family began last year when Wendy Thomas, the brand’s namesake and daughter of founder Dave Thomas, starred in commercials to promote its new signature burger, Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy.

Currently, she remains a brand spokeswoman for a two-pronged marketing strategy in which she touts the chain’s commitment to food quality and service in ads that talk about the “Wendy’s Way.”

For promoting specific items and limited-time offers, the chain also has different commercials featuring a redheaded character who uses a different tagline, “Now that’s better.” In late 2011, the chain used a different character, played by Reid Ewing from ABC’s “Modern Family,” but dusted off its famous slogan from a 1984 commercial: “Where’s the Beef?”

Dahlen was a marketing executive at Wendy’s in the 1980s when agency Cliff Freeman & Partners developed the chain’s “Where’s the Beef?” ads. (Coincidentally, he noted, Cliff Freeman also ran Little Caesars’ marketing account during the height of the “Pizza! Pizza!” campaign’s popularity.) The “Where’s the Beef?” redux seemed a little misdirected, he said, but the branding commercials with Wendy Thomas were spot-on.

“Of all of Wendy’s work the Wendy Thomas stuff is really well done,” he said. “When you spend that kind of money it would be nice to be able to say something nobody else can say. If it’s delivered by Wendy Thomas then only Wendy’s can do that. That’s smart and strategic.”

Next: Sonic
Previous: Little Caesars

Sonic: Reviving the dynamic duo


Earlier this year, Sonic rehired comedians T.J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz to film their deadpan commercials sitting in their car at a Sonic drive-in, and if their first commercial since being reinstated is to be believed, they were a mess during their hiatus.

The two “spokesdudes,” as well as another pair of comedians playing a married couple, had starred in Sonic commercials from 2002 to 2010, but were put on the back burner following some changes in Sonic’s marketing department and ad agency.

After 17 years with independent ad agency Barkley, Sonic took its account in February 2011 to Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. The chief marketing officer for Sonic at that time was Danielle Vona, who came aboard in July 2010 but left the company by Jan. 2012.

James O’Reilly, former chief concept officer for Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, was hired to replace her Feb. 3, and the new campaign with Jagodowski and Grosz kicked off Feb. 21.

Dahlen noted that advertising commonly takes a different direction when a brand changes out top-level marketers and new executives fall prey to “not-created-here syndrome” and scrap effective campaigns in favor of something bearing their personal stamp.

“[O’Reilly] came in there and did his homework and analysis,” Dahlen said. “They figured, let’s go back over the past five years with our sales, and then let’s overlay our creative calendar, and let’s see what ads ran during these successful sales cycles. That clears things up big-time.”

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.