The restaurant industry’s most effective advertisers broke out from the pack in 2011 with creative commercials that helped casual-dining, quick-service and pizza chains grab viewers’ attention, according to a year-end study by marketing research firm Ace Metrix.
The top 10 casual-dining, quick-service and pizza TV spots all earned Ace Scores higher than the restaurant industry’s yearlong average of 571 out of a possible 950, according to Jack McKee, the Los Angeles-based company’s vice president. In casual dining, top commercials based on surveyed scores went to campaigns that used “real people,” whether veterans or chefs. In quick service, which included pizza delivery chains, top commercials focused on price points and humor.
Ace Metrix calculates Ace Scores by combining survey respondents’ ratings of how persuasive and watchable commercials are, while also accounting for individual metrics, like brands’ likeability, their food’s desirability and their ability to grab attention.
Serious tone helps casual brands
In casual dining, putting a personal spin on advertising paid off for several brands. While Olive Garden’s straightforward commercial for its Half Panini Lunch took the segment’s top spot, five other commercials in the top 10 focused on real people rather than food in efforts to connect with guests on an emotional level.
Four Applebee’s commercials made the top 10 list, and three honored real people. The chain’s November spot honoring veterans earned the casual-dining segment’s second-highest score. Its three other ads came in seventh, eighth and ninth, with one commercial for its Sizzling Entrees and two ads in which research and development chefs Jason Amell and Shannon Johnson discussed their passion for creating the chain’s menu.
Watch Applebee’s Veterans Day commercial; story continues below
Honoring the military in November for Veteran’s Day, or the country near the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, was a smart branding move for restaurants and other advertisers this year, McKee said. Applebee’s and Golden Corral had the Nos. 2 and 3 highest-ranked commercials in casual dining with Veterans Day spots. But the top spots did have some tradeoffs, McKee said. While their “likeability” ratings among survey respondents were significantly higher than other brands’ results, the desire to eat the restaurants’ food significantly ranked lower than that of other brands.
“People like these brands [after watching Veterans’ Day commercials], but they don’t necessarily want to go out and get the product,” McKee said. “The emotional connection of these ‘I’m so passionate’ ads resonated so well because it shows that brands are thinking differently about how to connect to their guests.”
The 10 highest-scoring casual-dining ads took various approaches, he added, as the personal commercials highlighting real people also share the list with commercials for new products like the Half Panini Lunch and Baked Pasta Romana at Olive Garden, Lobster Stuffed Filet at LongHorn Steakhouse, and Sizzling Entrees at Applebee’s.
“Any time you can achieve high likeability, it’s great for the brand,” McKee said. “Having that mosaic of different types of creative to reach customers in the right way is very important.”
Watch Olive Garden’s commercial; story continues below
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Quick service and pizza: Who’s laughing now?
Pizza and quick-service chains took a different tack with their highest-scoring commercials of 2011, favoring ads with humor, value focus and new-product news.
The No. 1 and No. 4 rankings in the quick-service segment’s top 10 list were a 15-second commercial and a 30-second spot for Pizza Hut’s Big Dinner Box, a $19.99 bundle of two medium pizzas, eight wings and five breadsticks.
Watch Pizza Hut’s commercial; story continues below
While value and the introduction of a new product helped Pizza Hut, other brands achieved marketing breakthroughs with funny commercials, McKee said, adding that humor often can be a risky approach for marketers.
“QSR seems to have different rules,” he said. “Humor and lightheartedness play out better, while the emotive spots play much more effectively in casual.”
While Pizza Hut didn’t reinvent any breakthrough products with its ads for the Big Dinner Box, the chain did find a compelling way to remarket its signature items as a bundle for value-conscious diners, McKee said.
“When you look at the top 10 for quick service, it’s this combination of newer products or product variations that thematically pop,” he said. “The Big Dinner Box was an innovative way of presenting not necessarily new food, but its different packaging. Subway’s focus on health is a packaging move as well, positioning the brand differently, which continues to resonate.”
Sonic and Subway finished No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, on the quick-service list with humorous ads. Sonic’s 60-second commercial featured a man having absurd daydreams about the brand’s food. Subway’s third-ranked spot featured its Orchard Chicken Salad Sub — and highlighted how greasy fast food causes actors to break a hammock or a diving board with their girth.
Watch Sonice’s commercial; story continues below
Dairy Queen was another repeat winner that used a humorous approach. Ads with Dairy Queen’s ironically mustachioed spokesman tied for the No. 5 and No. 7 rankings. A 15-second variation of one of those spots, in which Dairy Queen equates its Mother’s Day cakes to its superior bubbles with kittens inside of them, earned the No. 10 spot.
Wendy’s, taking a straightforward angle, tied for No. 5 with an ad showing a taste test of its new Natural-Cut Fries with Sea Salt.