Fast-food rethinks marketing

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Even as critics and legislators keep fast-feeders in their sights over "unhealthy" menu offerings, consumers continue to have a big appetite for such fare.

In an era of greater health consciousness, where McDonald's Corp. is being singled out as a major culprit in childhood obesity and Wendy's International is scoring points with its salads, there are still many consumers receptive to fast-food pitches that appeal to their craving for "indulgence" food.

Recent research suggests most consumers are less concerned about their fast-food habits than the fat police are. One in five consumers say they buy only food products that are healthy for them, according to InsightExpress. Just 38% of respondents to a study by Information Resources Inc. indicate they avoid high-fat foods as much as possible. Among those who consider themselves obese and are not treating it, nearly 80% consider their health to be good to excellent, according to Multimedia Audience Research Systems' 2003 OTC/DTC Marketing & Media Survey.

More telling are data in the first-quarter Quick-Track national study from Sandelman & Associates. Of 12 factors people consider in choosing a quick-service restaurant, the availability of healthy or nutritious food ranked 11th with 60.3% of consumers saying it was extremely or very important; the top-ranked factor was taste at 93%. "What that means is some people look for something healthy on the menu, but it's not that important to most people compared to other attributes," says President Steve Sandelman.

As Harry Balzer, VP of NPD Foodworld, states plainly: "If you want to make money in this country, sell burgers. If you want to be on trend, sell salads. But there's going to be more money made in burgers because the money is being made from what consumers do, not what they say they do or what they say they want."

A SNACK, NOT A MEAL

Regardless of what consumers really want, health consciousness is affecting the marketing strategies for indulgence fast-food products. Some marketers manage to skirt the health debate by positioning their menu offerings as a treat or snack, rather than as a full-fledged meal, and others stress the quality and taste of their food rather than its calories.

"For us the focus continues to be on the food," says Jamie Richardson, marketing director at White Castle System, famous for its steamed little burgers. White Castle pushes its food as something consumers crave and buy on an impulse rather than as a planned meal.

"We're keenly aware of the importance of the things the category is facing," Mr. Richardson says, "but our customers tell us they don't want us to change. There'd be a revolt if we tried to separate from the message of taste, and that's what separates us from the pack."

At Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, affordable indulgence is the main positioning, and that strategy has powered the chain to tremendous growth, with net income up nearly 50% for the first quarter vs. a year ago, and same-store sales up 11.2%. "Customers want a great-tasting treat, and that's what we give them because that's what customers expect," says Stan Parker, senior VP-marketing. He adds that people wouldn't buy doughnuts that had half the calories and half the taste.

"I don't think we feel exempt [from scrutiny] ... because no one looks at Krispy Kreme as a replacement for lunch or dinner," he says. "It's a complement."

Even Starbucks Coffee Co., long known as a savvy marketer, is getting into the indulgence business selling cream-based coffees that are more like milk shakes than your morning joe. "Starbucks remains committed to developing both indulgent and non-indulgent beverage options for our customers," says a spokeswoman.

Mainstream fast-feeders can't afford to completely abandon indulgence in favor of a health positioning. Burger giants have rolled out entree salads, chicken filets and even veggie burgers, but that hasn't stopped indulgent introductions like Triple Thick shakes at McDonald's.

Hardee's Food Systems in April, via Los Angeles agency Mendelsohn/Zien, launched a brand repositioning around great tasting burgers, and other chains are doing the same.

"We are positioning ourselves as the place to get the premium quality burgers in the fast-food segment," says Brad Haley, exec VP-marketing. With 80% of the Hardee's system having converted to the Thickburger menu, the CKE Restaurants-owned chain is starting to improve with a 0.4% same-store sales gain for the four weeks ended June 16. Comparable sales fell 4% during the earlier four-week period as the company expected.

Nevertheless, restaurants' burger orders compared to all restaurant orders are at their lowest-ever share, at 14.7% of orders in 2002 on increased sandwich competition, according to NPD data to be released later this year.

NOT EXEMPT

Using indulgent treat positioning won't necessarily exempt fast-feeders from scrutiny by health advocates. Critics are now coming after these marketers too, says Andrea Friedman, partner at the law firm of Hall Dickler Kent Goldstein & Wood, Chicago. She's skeptical that such cases will succeed.

These marketing strategies position "their food as the very tip of the food pyramid, as `Use these treats sparingly as treats only,' so it does cut well for [indulgence marketers]," she says.

In the latest blast against fast-food, John Banzhaf III, the George Washington University law professor who's leading the battle against big fat, earlier this month sent letters to six major fast-feeders demanding they post warning signs that say studies on animals show eating fatty foods triggers "addictive" responses. He cites a "growing body of evidence" that fast-food affects the brain much the same way as nicotine.

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