Can Kaplan Thaler Help Wendy's Get Past Those Wig Ads?

Fast Feeder Remains in Third Place, Aims to Reconnect With Fans

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- A woman in a red, braided wig was greeted at Kaplan Thaler Group's office in New York last Wednesday by screaming employees who realized a letter she was carrying said the agency had won Wendy's $300 million advertising account. The wig was symbolic on a couple of levels: It not only represented the chain's iconic roots but was also the lynchpin of a campaign from a previous agency Wendy's would rather forget.

Despite improved sales, Wendy's has remained in third place in the burger category. The red wigs might not have helped.
Despite improved sales, Wendy's has remained in third place in the burger category. The red wigs might not have helped.
The agency selection is the culmination of a nine-month process led by Chief Marketing Officer Ken Calwell that involved three top executives, three major franchisees, his VP-marketing and one consultant. Their common goal: to reconnect with Wendy's fans using the avuncular appeal of old without the tree-kicking hijinks of the recent past.

Wendy's has a way to go to get out of the woods. The chain's same-store sales have begun to grow again, up 3% in the fourth quarter of 2008 and up 1% in the first quarter of 2009. (The chain will release second-quarter results later this week.) But despite improved sales, Wendy's has remained in third place in the burger category, behind McDonald's and Burger King. According to Technomic, Wendy's had 12.6% of category sales to Burger King's 14.2% in 2008. McDonald's owned 46.8% of the category.

When Mr. Calwell returned to Wendy's last fall after seven years as CMO of Domino's, he decided the company needed to get back to basics, figure out its brand identity, reinvigorate innovation and get its restaurants up to scratch. He and the team created a brand book, conducted consumer research and rebuilt the research-and-development pipeline.

Wendy's, he said, had made the mistake of too narrowly defining its target "by age and gender" with the polarizing red wig campaign that appealed to young men. "Come on," he said, "there's got to be more than that."

Kaplan Thaler, by contrast, "understood our target incredibly well. They brought that consumer target alive in the room," Mr. Calwell said. He was mum, however, on what to expect from new creative slated for fall.

Kaplan Thaler pitched with siblings MediaVest, the media incumbent, and Saatchi & Saatchi X, which will hold onto the shopper-marketing portion of the account.

'Good cultural fit'
One executive familiar with both marketer and agency described the partnership as a "really good cultural fit." After all, agency CEO Linda Kaplan Thaler and President Robin Koval co-wrote "The Power of Nice," and Wendy's founder Dave Thomas' famous mantra was "Just be nice."

Wendy's is Kaplan Thaler's first fast-food client, after 12 years in business. Ms. Kaplan Thaler isn't new to the industry, though; she has experience on Burger King's business.

But neither Wendy's nor Kaplan Thaler is the biggest or coolest kid on the block. Wendy's is smaller than McDonald's and not as hip as Burger King, and Kaplan Thaler is not as stylish as Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the agency Mr. Calwell hired for Domino's.

What appealed to Mr. Calwell was that Kaplan Thaler is an "idea-led lead agency," with a track record of making known small brands such as Aflac and turning around ailing brands such as Continental Airlines. Both companies are Kaplan success stories. Mr. Calwell was also looking for an agency that could get Wendy's noticed "in the right way." He looked at each agency's creative scores, using Creativity.

In the end, it came down to one dinner with his team at Smith & Wollensky in the Columbus, Ohio, Hilton after the final pitches. "In very quick order we had a unanimous decision," Mr. Calwell said. After the ensuing steak celebration, Mr. Calwell said, "I slept better that night than I'd slept in a long time."

Not a knock on Kirshenbaum
The shift to Kaplan Thaler isn't a knock on the agency that preceded it, Mr. Calwell said. "I will tell you that [Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners] came into Wendy's at a very difficult time," Mr. Calwell said. "There was the challenge of the red-wig campaign and all of that in the past."

That famed campaign, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, wasn't driving sales, he said, and "it was fracturing the system and causing angst with franchisees, and that's not what we should be doing." Wendy's moved its business from McCann Erickson to the Publicis Groupe agency in 2007, and then to MDC Partners' Kirshenbaum a year later.

Richard Kirshenbaum, co-founder and co-chairman, said the agency is "extremely proud that we grew our business with Wendy's from a smaller breakfast assignment to national AOR and that our work led to an increase in Wendy's overall sales results."

Mr. Calwell described Kirshenbaum's work as "good, solid advertising," "successful at getting rid of the negative," "getting brand-recall scores going back in the right direction" and "starting to build back the trust of the franchise system."

Now it's up to Kaplan Thaler to finish the job. Mr. Calwell plans to focus on the innovation he said "customers expect" from Wendy's. He pointed to Wendy's premium salad launch of 2001 as its last big idea, and said the chain's new boneless Asian wings are in the same league. Having innovation in place he said, "gives us something to talk about."

"We're trying to have fun with our brand again," Mr. Calwell said during an interview from Kaplan Thaler's office, where his team was waiting for Frosty machines to be delivered for an office party.