|Burger King is using some rather edgy quality messages on its European tray liners.|
"Marketers understand there's an element of fear, and if they can somehow allay that fear, they can gain market share," said Robbie Vorhaus, a crisis-and-reputation expert.
If they can't, they may lose customers. A 2006 E. coli crisis at Taco Bell cost the company $20 million in fourth-quarter operating profits alone. A New York City rat infestation followed in early 2007, and same-store sales took several quarters to recover.
"The greatest asset any business has is their reputation," Mr. Vorhaus said. "If they're able to isolate [salmonella] to a brand or a product, it could have a billion-dollar hit."
More than 1,000 infected
The government has yet to identify a source for a recent salmonella outbreak that has infected more than 1,000 people in 41 states. In a conference call with reporters earlier this month, Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration, said the source may never be known.
Amid the confusion, fast-food players, including McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's, are lining up to explain why their food is fresh and reasonably healthy. "This is not a separate effort," said McDonald's USA Chief Creative Officer Marlena Peleo-Lazar. "Some say, 'Here's quality, here's all of the other stuff.' But this is one advertising campaign."
McDonald's has made quality an issue by instituting a "Mom's Quality Correspondents" program, inviting a group of handpicked women to tour the company's restaurants, farms and processing plants.
As part of its Olympics push, McDonald's has added images of athletes on one side of its bags and "100% beef, 0% anything else" on the other. The company is also erecting "billboards" that emphasize fresh ingredients, including a mechanical egg in Chicago that cracks open during breakfast hours.
Wendy's TV spots, from MDC Partners' Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, underscores the chain's fresh-never-frozen meat, specific cuts and whether the meat was cut by hand, which some associate with freshness. "If you don't know what it is, don't eat it," says a recent ad for Wendy's new fish sandwich. "It's not mystery fish. It's hand-cut fillets of North Pacific cod."
BK's edgy European message
In the U.S., Burger King has built quality initiatives around the 50th anniversary of the Whopper and the launch of its Steakhouse Burger. But it's in Europe where the chain is using some rather edgy quality messages.
On a European tray liner, Burger King depicts a rancid looking onion with its pants down about to be searched by a pickle that's putting on a pair of rubber gloves. The stressed-looking vegetable, in an airport setting, is standing beneath a sign that says "strictly-controlled ingredients."
The potential problem with this messaging, Mr. Vorhaus said, is that consumers are getting smarter. Generalized messages about quality don't always suffice. "You used to say, 'I want a hamburger,'" he said. But now consumers are asking tougher questions. "The question now is 'What was that cow raised on?' 'Where did it come from?' '[How] is your packing plant?'"
But Darren Tristano, exec VP at Technomic, said about 25% of all consumers are concerned about food safety all the time. After a major outbreak, the concerned population swells to 40% to 50%, but doesn't go any higher.
"Most consumers are generally concerned, but it's not top of mind," he said. "I think they're more worried about whether an employee washed their hands than if the ingredient were brought up through Mexico and if there might be a salmonella issue."