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Top executives at fast-food chains are feeling more heat to make their brands stand apart in the face of stiff competition and slow growth.

The task has gotten so tough, in fact, that the highest-profile job in the $100 billion fast-food business-senior VP-marketing for the U.S. division of McDonald's Corp.-has gone vacant since last spring, when Brad Ball left to become president of marketing at Warner Bros. Studios.

Many seasoned executives say they'd like to be offered the job as an ego boost, but would think hard about accepting it because of the sheer challenge of making the mature, 12,500-unit chain stand out in the crowded marketplace.


"This is not a category where there are significant new customers," notes James Watkins, senior VP-North American marketing, Burger King Corp.

McDonald's, the top media spender in the category by far-spending topped $578 million last year-has been a perennial member of Advertising Age's Power 50. This year it's a no-show because of the vacancy at the time selections were made.

Burger King and Wendy's International, the No. 2 and No. 3 U.S. burger chains, remain on the list as they using different tactics to fight the fast-food wars-and they're yielding positive results.


At Burger King, guided by Mr. Watkins, 42, there's a stronger emphasis on product introductions, such as the Big King sandwich, new french fries and Cini-Mini breakfast treats. The products are touted with advertising from Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, that takes a jab at comparable products from McDonald's.

Overall, the message is taste, says Mr. Watkins, who recently steered the chain from its longtime value message to a new advertising theme, "It just tastes better."

Wendy's, meanwhile, has had changes in its marketing department but is unwavering in its commitment to the chain's 11-year-old ad campaign from Bates Worldwide, New York, featuring founder Dave Thomas as pitchman.

Donald Calhoon, senior VP-corporate marketing, a 20-year Wendy's veteran, is overseeing its estimated $175 million advertising budget following the decision last spring by longtime Exec VP-Marketing Charlie Rath, 62, to give up day-to-day responsibility for the department. Emil Brolick, senior VP-strategic planning, research and new product marketing, works with Mr. Calhoon as they continue to position the chain as a quality brand in the fast-food wars.

With the help of a feisty Spanish-speaking chihuahua, Vada Hill, chief marketing officer of Taco Bell, has managed to break through the clutter of burger and pizza ads with a campaign that has become part of the pop culture vernacular in remarkably short order.

Perhaps more importantly, the campaign-themed "I want some Taco Bell"-has helped boost sales at the chain following several years of disappointing results.


Mr. Hill, 39, joined Taco Bell in September 1996 from BBDO Worldwide, Los Angeles. His first move was to hire TBWA Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., the hot creative shop that repositioned the ailing Jack in the Box chain.

Mr. Hill says he's trying to position the brand as "great tasting Mexican food with attitude" supported by unexpected advertising.

Last spring, for instance, in a quick jab at Burger King, Taco Bell touted its new Gordita product in TV and print ads by showing the chihuahua stomping a Burger King crown and declaring, "Hasta la vista, Whopper." The ads were created after research showed young men preferred the Gordita-Mr. Hill describes it as a hearty taco on steroids-to a Whopper.

"Maybe here was another reason for guys to buy Gorditas tomorrow," he says. "We thought we were able to do that in a cute and positive way."

Mr. Watkins says Burger King was "thrilled" by the punch. "Taco Bell came out and told the world who has the best tasting burger in America," he says.

Vada Hill

Taco Bell Corp.

Title: Chief marketing officer

Ad Budget: $184 million

Agencies: TBWA Chiat/Day

Power play: Revitalized the chain's marketing strategy with a sharper emphasis on teens and the brand's Mexican heritage, all touted with a new mascot, a Spanish speaking chihuahua.

Years on list: One.

James Watkins

Burger King Corp.

Title: Senior VP-North American marketing

Ad Budget: $423 million

Agency: Ammirati Puris Lintas

Power play: He increased emphasis on taste and product introductions after a long-running value campaign, in a pre-emptive move against a new taste initiative slowly rolling into archrival McDonald's. Years on list: Two.

Donald Calhoon

Wendy's International

Title: Senior VPCorporate Marketing

Ad budget: $172 million

Agency: Bates Worldwide

Power play: Sticking to Wendy's quality message and staying above the sniping of other chains in the competitive burger segment.

Years on list: One.

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