Local Flavor

Theresa Howard

They don’t have the budgets or the doors to get Hollywood’s attention, but some of the best brand management in the fast food business is coming from regional marketers such as Chik-fil-A’s David Salyers (right).

Creative thinking is not a requirement for those born into privilege. Six figure incomes and big million bonuses preclude any effort needed to find ways to pay for life’s basic necessities. But when it comes to families raising kids on a shoestring budget, inferior products in the true economic sense become the mainstay of dinner and emerge later in life and memory as comfort foods. Original games that would otherwise go unplayed become a heartfelt tradition in households that can not afford the latest and greatest high-tech gadgetry. Like those families who must continue to work against life’s daily challenges with a lot less than their neighbors or rich aunts, a handful of restaurant businesses are finding ways to drive the creative juices and do a lot more with much less.

And in the world of fast food, regional niche players are continuing to show that they can not only keep up with their better-off competitors, but actually do more with less, creating the kind of nuanced, populistic brand identity, with a touch of home town charm, brands that stand on their own without the bells, whistles and tchotchkes of the latest Hollywood blockbuster or hit kidvid show. Anyone with enough marketing clout and retail doors can strike the next Hollywood mega-alliance such as McDonald’s with Disney, or Tricon Global Restaurants’ with Lucasfilm, but sans such borrowed equity, it becomes all the more incumbent to gestate genuinely distinct value equations and ways to communicate them. While the likes of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and the Tricon brands, Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, continue to try to lure consumers with equity borrowed from sports and entertainment properties-some successfully, most not-some of the most creative brand management in the business is coming from companies such as Taco Cabana, Jack in the Box, Chick-fil-A, Biscuitville and Foodmaker’s Taco Bueno and Carl’s Jr. These are smart, profitable, nimble companies fighting the food battles in their own backyards, with strategies that are simplicity unto themselves, as pegged to authenticity, quality, service and proprietary marketing that hits the target better, and harder.

To an executive, it seems, marketers of these chains have focused on the basic restaurant business tenets of unique product and service propositions for their customers, distinct atmosphere and creative environments that have allowed marketers and their agencies to carve out images wholly alternative to national formulas. In effect, they have managed the kind of brand personalities that McDonald’s, for example, seems to have lost amid all its Disney movies and TV shows. While the uber-brands continue to play it out with international development, value menus and deep discounts on signature sandwiches, niche operators are charging premium prices, running stronger profit margins and connecting with consumers. Consider a comparison between McDonald’s, which recently ran a two-for deal that sold two Big Macs for $2.22 and Sonic, which sold its Brown Bag special of two sodas, two fries and two regular burgers for $5.99. And the strategies are playing out to the tune of double digit–or nearly so–same-store sales growth at a time when national competitors are gleeful over a 3-5% annual uptick.

At the heart of each success story seems to lie the same watchword: focus.

“There are certain seasons of the year when everyone jumps on the price bandwagon,” said Bob Wisely, svp-marketing at Carl’s Jr., the West Coast chain long known for its innovative product mix. “[But] we are sticking to our knitting. The world doesn’t need another six items at 99 cents.”

“Each one of these concepts has their own niche,” said Brad Todd, principal with Dallas-based The Richards Group, the agency of record for Atlanta-based Chickfil-A, a primarily Southeastern chain. “You can’t lump them together for a class of trade… Each one of them that has been successful has a clear position within the consumer’s mind and they have a real target based more on psychographics than demographics. They really understand what that consumer prefers about their particular product.”

One huge advantage these smaller players hold: the lean animal runs faster. Versus literal armies of franchisees, from all quarters of the country, that the majors need to sign up and get signed off on major product, service or marketing initiatives, the regional fast feeders deal with smaller, more regionally distinct market-bases and can turn around most initiatives more quickly and with less risk. A dearth of layers and franchisees facilitates speed of communication from store level to the top marketer. This eliminates lengthy approval processes of new initiatives that can range from store design to new product intros.

“All these brands are good examples and reinforce what a company can accomplish when one is focused,” said Ron Paul, president, Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based marketing research firm. “When you don’t try to spread yourself too thin geographically you can communicate better, respond more quickly to franchisees and react to the nature of the audience. You also have the ability to have a very strong culture. They don’t have franchisee management problems 10,000 miles away.”

To be sure, national audience considerations can water down product distinction. McDonald’s, for all the new products with which it has attempted to broaden its menu over the years, still carries a relatively bland chicken fajita. Domino’s and Pizza Hut have both attempted to get in on slow national acclimatization of Buffalo wings, but, for fear of alienating the broad spectrum, their products remain bland and a far cry from the melt-your-mind-spicy real thing. Meanwhile, Taco Cabana, based in San Antonio with all its outlets in Texas-but due to open its first Oklahoma store later this year-has beer and a fixings bar of fresh condiments from cut jalapenos to a roster of mild to smoking salsas. Taco Cabana, for its diverse fare, racks up an average guest check of $5.18, versus the industry norm of just over $3, through such menu offerings as Margarita chicken, a 6-oz. real white meat chicken breast marinated in citrus lime, with black beans and rice for $3.99, launching later this year.

It is such fare-not chef-specialties by any means, but still a far cry from boilerplate meal deals or extra pizza toppings that characterize the nationals-that can make all the difference to local customers. Witness Biscuitville’s upcoming test of a Country-fried Pork Tenderloin on a biscuit. Sonic Burger’s menu includes such staples as Cherry Limeades, Tater Tots and Extra-Long Cheese Coneys, and the company this past year spiced up its menu with permanent and limited-time offering items such as Toasters, a line of sandwiches served on Texas Toast, a thick, fried butter bread that cushions either a bacon cheeseburger or chicken club.

Sonic, which saw sales jump 7% to $758,000 per unit in 1998, is also building its brand effectively through increased media expenditures, which are slated to jump 18% to $52 million for 1999, much of that to tout the chain’s extensive retrofitting. That effort has cross-pollinated its ’50s style carhop theme with an art decocum-Jetsons look. The effort, undertaken a year ago, and is evidenced in about 431 of the system’s 1,850 Sunbelt restaurants. The effect of the look and the drive-up service, replete with the traditional wait-staff on skates, takes on an elan of a trade-up from typical fast food experiences. The local-market ad heralding the change, created by Barkley & Evergreen, Kansas City, Mo., featured an iconic, comely waitress on skates, not dissimilar to the famous cover of the soundtrack to American Graffiti, to the strains of the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around.” Add to that the unique food offerings and there seems on Sonic’s corner of the intersection something more three-dimensional than a window p lacard shouting about a loss-leader sandwich deal. Appropriately, signs on restaurants beckon drivers with the slogan, “Drive in for a change.”

“A lot of it is that we have a very unique concept and from a research perspective we are delivering what consumers want with menu variety, high quality food and service in an entertaining unique environment,” said Pattye Moore, svp-brand development and marketing at Sonic. “We have a very unique brand to market in an industry that struggles to create brand awareness.”

In fact, with the advent and expansion onslaught of Starbucks and other midscale places whose brand is so predicated on environment, regional players have been the first to adapt “third-place,” or more hangout friendly, environmental design to their stores. With an eye toward both drawing consumers and keeping them around to rack up a bigger ticket, Taco Buena and Taco Cabana are refurbishing for less sterile, more engaging stores, inside and out. Taco Buena’s bold building design features contemporary Mexican architecture splashed with eye-catching colors like sunflower, tangerine, cactus, periwinkle and enchilada red. Its new sign sports an “0” shaped mouth that seems to shout, “Buena!” Interior elements include sleek serpentine stainless-steel counters, black slate tile and vividly colored contemporary art.

“We want our customers to have a memorable dining experience all the way around,” said Frank Morales, evp at Taco Bueno, which is based in Dallas with all units in Texas. “While our fresh, handmade food will always be the feature attraction, we think our new restaurant design should reflect our personality as well.”

Taco Cabana, which itself boasts a more cafe-esque environ and a bold poly-chromatic exterior, recently introduced a new prototype that accentuates a more full-service feel. With the exception of prices, the company is creating a bold step between fast food and casual midscale restaurants such as Chili’s and The Olive Garden, in line with its position that it serves freshly made, cooked to order dishes in a dining environment that also offers wine and beer, considered a must with Mexican fare in some quarters of Southwestern culture. That alone offers a point of difference in the world of fast food, but gives the chain more of a “hang-out” feel, and provides much of the reason the chain’s per-store sales stack up with the tops in the industry, just barely under $1.5 million annually, a figure that ranks just second to industry leader McDonald’s.

“Some of our consumers are fast feeders and some use us as casual dining,” said Dennis Greenia, svp-marketing. “We like to consider ourselves quick service but when fast feeders visit us but we raise the bar on expectations because they get something they wouldn’t get at another place.”

Beyond value and high-quality products, Taco Cabana, like its counterparts. uses a strong brand personality to cultivate a strong following with its target. Currently, the chain uses an all radio strategy to the tune of $6 million annually, forgoing a TV budget that had been used in years past but that didn’t quite deliver a strong enough return. Instead, the chain relies on edgy radio with voiceover by Cheech Main of the famed “Cheech and Chong” duo. And to play up its units as restaurants, not just cookie-cutter pieces of modular, plastic empires, Taco Cabana has recently undertaken a program to train its ill- unit general managers on the principles of local store marketing through a three-month training program that requires each of them to submit a marketing plan at the class’ end.

“You sell great food to a bunch of people from a big pink building, what could be more fun than that,” Greenia said.

Biscuitville also borrows on the essence of the local cafe., Lately, the 43-unit Carolinas chain, based in Burlington, NC., has taken to bashing its mass marketed competitors for their inferior workmanship behind breakfast offerings, building its own cult status with a customer whose median age is 42. The firm’s latest work, via West & Vaughn, Durham, N.C., combines a retro drive-in animation look with an attack on mass-produced biscuits. The ads take a look at the inner goings-on of the kitchens in the big nationals and close with the message of Biscuitville: “Good Southern food fast. Without all the hoopla.” The look of the ads has now been extended to in-store marketing materials.

“The retro look is kind of radical for us but it is what has helped us be so memorable,” said Kellie James, marketing and advertising director. “A bacon egg and cheese biscuit will cost you $1.59 but they’re real eggs, they’re cracked and they’re fried. Our biscuits are made from scratch. The difference in price between us and them is all relative to the value of the product quality. We wanted to position the brand as it carries through with product and service.”

Biscuitville has found a way to generate a $3.50 per person check average and more than $750,000 in per-unit sales through a concept that operates on Greasy Spoon hours, 6 a.m.-2 p.m.

Such clarity of mission statement seems a hallmark of the top regional players, and is in evidence in the creativity they exhibit. While the national advertising community has made much hay in the last year or so over Taco Bell and agency TBWA/Chiat/Day’s creative breakthrough with the chain’s Chihuahua spokesdog, the regionals have been at the forefront of trademark ad and promotional creative that extends the brand off the airwaves.

Chick-fil-A, now hitting the third year behind its “Eat mor chikin” campaign, has taken what started as a small outdoor media effort and turned it into a fully integrated campaign that includes instore premiums and promotions. At the crux is a cadre of insurgent cows trying to stave off death by the promotion of chicken consumption, to manifest again with a broadstroke “Summer of Chicken” campaign this year, in which its spokescows, and accompanying plush premiums, will appear in tie-dye.

“We focus on quality service, cleanliness and service times, but in recent years marketing has played more and more of a role than we expected, and it will continue to do so,” said David Salyers, vp-marketing for the Atlanta-based chain.

The chain this year held title sponsorship of the Peach Bowl and several SEC sponsorships, along with accompanying sweepstakes. But the chicken-promoting cows have been the thing for Chick-fil-A. The local efforts have been supported with a marketwide overlay of its cow campaign and the first-time use of its bovine as plush toys. The company issued 72,000 of the sign-bearing cows, thus far, with summer’s “retro”-cow kicking the concept into gear again. “We have a long term campaign in mind for our cows,” Salyers said.

Taco Bueno uses a mustachioed hand-puppet (a fist who “talks” with the movement of the thumb), Serior Bueno, who not only recounts his days in Mexico, but serves as an ambassador of food quality and portions. In one spot, via agency of record, Mendelsohn/Zien, Santa Monica, Calif., Senor Buenos face is sweating after just finishing a spicy jalapeno burrito. He is thankful that the restaurants offers free refills and makes his way to a Coke fountain where he proceeds to quench his thirst by holding his mouth under the fountain, whereupon the soda goes right through him. Each spot kicks in the Senor Bueno riff, that Taco Bueno’s fare is made “by hand.”

Jack in the Box has perhaps been a creative bellwether in the industry. Jack in the Box, via agency of record Kowloon Wholesale Seafood, Santa Monica, has taken Jack, the big-plastic-ball-headed spokesclown and titular “CEO” of the company, from his reintroduction in 1995 and not only made him the star of some of the most breakthrough advertising in the business, but extended that equity into the company’s promotional efforts. Antenna balls, premiums in the likeness of Jack’s head, have taken on a life of their own, even becoming characters in ads themselves. In one, the balls stage a meeting, not unlike one of franchisees, in which they are briefed on how to pitch their owners on the latest promotional burger. In another spot, a Chihuahua waddling down the street turns to Mr. Ball, perched on his antenna, and says, “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” Mr. Ball screams from his antenna, “You’re a dog. Since when do dogs care what they eat.” Since 1995, the system has issued some 14 million premiums of Jack in ball or coll ectible toy form.

No borrowed equity there. Essentially, the artfully managed quirkiness of Jack, extended throughout all branding measures of Jack in the Box, has created a closed loop of brand value.

“In the consumers’ mind these concepts occupy a different niche,” said Technomic’s Paul. “They are a great alternative to the bigger brands. These brands have some of the attributes of a boutique, they are unique and a little exclusive and the customers know they are a little more hometown focused. There is nothing unique about any of the national brands. But these regionals, they are a little bit more special.”

COPYRIGHT 1999 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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