Noodles & Company Launches Branding Push, Cleans Up Menu

Noodle Chain's Revamp Includes Increased Marketing Spending Amid Sluggish Sales

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Credit: Noodles & Company

Noodles & Company launched a brand positioning campaign Tuesday focused on real food, cooking techniques and flavors as the chain cleans up its menu to appeal to millennial families and other diners searching for "free-from" fare.

Chief Marketing Officer Mark Mears, who joined the chain in July, said it is "making a bigger commitment to marketing because we believe that awareness is so important. It's becoming more crowded, more competitive."

At the same time, chains from Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread to McDonald's and Wendy's have been cleaning up some of their items and promoting those changes. And while Noodles is on track to open dozens of restaurants this year, it anticipates sales at existing locations will be flat to up in a low-single percentage range, at best.

To help spur growth, the chain is out with a new brand effort -- "Made. Different. – REAL Food. REAL Cooking. REAL Flavors."

"We believe that we'll reap the fruits of this labor over time," said Mr. Mears, who said the Colorado-based company will be doubling its marketing spending over the next several months. Barkley is its agency of record, and ICR works on its publicity efforts.

The company is putting food and its cooking techniques front and center in some of its new marketing. Noodles, which saw President Keith Kinsey leave earlier this year to run the Portillo's fast-food chain, has tweaked its menu in other ways. Earlier this year it added "BUFF Bowls," which include extra vegetables and use spinach in places of noodles, to appeal to low-carb diners. It is also going after "career-minded millennial parents" in part with the kids' menu launched last week, Mr. Mears said.

For the fourth quarter, its mass media efforts are focused on four key markets for the brand: Denver; Colorado Springs, Co.; Washington, D.C.; and Madison, Wisc. Noodles plans to expand the push into 2016, Mr. Mears said. Other elements of the effort, such as SEO, direct mail and local restaurant marketing, goes beyond those four markets.

The marketing push comes as Noodles removes artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and sweeteners from its core menu items: noodles, sauces, soups, condiments, bread and dressings. However, ingredients in items such as beverages and cookies are not changing just yet.

"Right now everything that we're announcing has no effect on our pricing," Mr. Mears said. However, the company's ongoing test in Colorado for antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken includes a 20 cent price increase, and there has been some sales reaction due to the higher price. "As we move forward our goal is to minimize the cost impact to our guests," Mr. Mears said.

Noodles said it would take more time to make changes to some ingredients, as it works with suppliers to get what it needs without hitting pricing too hard. The company, which Mr. Mears said has always sold organic tofu and non-GMO noodles and pasta, introduced "naturally-raised" pulled pork across the country in 2012. Now, it anticipates having hormone-free cheddar jack cheese in all restaurants by November, but will only begin to test a hormone-free cheese sauce in Colorado in the fourth quarter. It plans to have antibiotic- and hormone-free steak and meatball options in mid-to-late 2016, followed by a nationwide rollout of antibiotic-free chicken by early 2017.

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