OLIVE GARDEN TO SERVE UP ITS OWN BRAND OF HOSPITALITY: HOT-PERFORMING RESTAURANTS DROP PRICE EMPHASIS IN NEW AD EFFORT

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Faced with the enviable problem of sustaining a record of strong sales increases, Darden Restaurants' Olive Garden chain plans to launch its first new ad campaign in four years next month.

The brand-building campaign from Grey Advertising, New York, focuses on "hospitaliano," the 465-unit chain's internal lingo for providing diners Italian-style hospitality.

"We say it's our passion for 100% guest delight," said Senior VP-Marketing J.J. Buettgen. "For the first time, we'll be communicating `hospitaliano' to our guests. It's a competitive point."

FOCUS ON `LITTLE EXTRAS'

The TV campaign will focus on the "little extras you don't have to ask for," like fresh ingredients, the big bowl of tossed salad and freshly baked breadsticks automatically delivered to tables, Mr. Buettgen said.

The campaign moves away from current ads that focus on price promotions and highlight particular dishes.

Three commercials, each in 15-and 30-second versions, will run in rotation for 10 weeks on national network TV.

One spot, called "Big Italian Family," features a thirtysomething woman describing her big family as they share a festive meal at Olive Garden, passing around salad, entrees, photos and even a baby.

"They call it hospitaliano. Everything of ours is yours," the woman says. The spot ends with the campaign's new tagline: "When you're here, you're family."

NO PRICES MENTIONED

No prices or products are mentioned, although the camera lingers on new menu items such as breadstick pizza.

While Mr. Buettgen declined to say how much the chain is spending overall this year on advertising, he said network TV spending will be about $35 million to $50 million, roughly equal to last year.

"We're a pretty big prime player now, and we'll be bigger with the launch," said Mr. Buettgen.

Olive Garden views its key competitors as mom-and-pop Italian restaurants. The chain's average check per person is $11.50, and it has a broad customer base that ranges from business people at lunchtime to families at dinner.

13 QUARTERS OF GAINS

Following sales dips in 1994 and early '95, the chain has posted 13 straight quarters of same-store sales gains, ending the last reported quarter with a 9.1% increase over the same period the previous year.

"They are clearly very strong numbers. It's felt like sustained improvement, [not] like a new product blip," said BT Alex. Brown restaurant analyst David Trossman.

Mr. Buettgen said the chain has benefited from its long relationship with Grey, the only agency to handle the account since the restaurants opened in 1982.

Rich Kushel, senior VP-creative director at Grey, who has handled the account from the start, said, "To me, this is like a child that's beginning to be an adult. Isn't it a wonderful time to see how we can do things differently?"

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