MCD'S PREPARES NEW SANDWICHES FOR ROLLOUT: BIG XTRA, CHICKEN ITEMS SLATED FOR INTRO, WITH NEW COOKING SYSTEM

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Three sandwiches currently in test are expected to be what McDonald's Corp. uses to jump back into the fast-food game of providing new-product news to consumers.

Stung by the high-profile failure of its Arch Deluxe in 1996, McDonald's has shied away from big product launches as it helped franchisees finance the installation of new cooking equipment.

The Big Xtra, a large burger with lettuce and tomato, and two revamped chicken sandwiches-McCrispy Chicken and a grilled chicken-top the list of contenders for chainwide rollout once the burger giant has completed the addition of the new cooking system throughout its 12,500 U.S. outlets.

A tossed salad line, McSalad Shakers, and fruit and yogurt parfaits, both now in test (AA, March 8), don't depend on the new equipment and could hit stores sooner.

But they aren't expected to have the same sales potential as the sandwiches, observers said.

The Made for You system is expected to be chainwide by yearend, a company spokesman said.

The Big Xtra, dubbed the Whopper stopper, was first launched in market test in late 1997. It has been slowly rolled into about a quarter of the units in the chain's five U.S. operating divisions and into all McDonald's restaurants in Canada. It fills a gap in the menu for a burger with lettuce and tomato, ingredients central to archrival Burger King's Whopper.

HOW TO PROMOTE

Ad executives are grappling with how to promote the new cooking system, and whether it needs to be mentioned at all.

A TV spot for Big Xtra now airing in San Diego reflects some tweaking from earlier versions. It positions the burger as "Hot. Fresh. Just for you!" vs. the previous "Made for you." It includes the chain's "Did somebody say McDonald's?"

It's not clear whether the spot is from regional agency DavisElen Advertising, Los Angeles, or national agency DDB Worldwide, Chicago.

Whatever the product, McDonald's will use its $570 million media budget for advertising to put food and food preparation in the spotlight again.

"We're going back to the things Wendy's and Burger King have been selling, the sizzle," said an executive familiar with McDonald's ad strategy.

Those chains get higher marks in consumer tests on food, and highlight products in their TV advertising.

TOUTING THE TASTE

"We'll be talking about the great-tasting food, rather than price points. You'll see a lot more pride in the food and the great taste," the executive said. "We'll be romancing the food. Showing it being assembled. You haven't seen that in a long time."

In another development, McDonald's is leveraging its 10-year marketing pact with Walt Disney Co. to stage a millennium event with Disney's theme parks.

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