Rowden grabs Wendy's collar, yanks it forward

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[Dublin, Ohio] When Wendy's Exec VP-Chief Marketing Officer Don Calhoon announced his plans to step down last summer, he said his successor wouldn't shake up marketing or make major changes. But six months into the job, Aussie Ian Rowden has ripped through Wendy's like a Tasmanian devil.

Mr. Wendy? Gone. Stop-gap tribute ads to late founder Dave Thomas? Gone. Exiled too, is the "pillar" strategy that drove marketing for years, neatly portioning out advertising between core menu items, new products and value to the same monolithic audience much the way a section eater works through a buffet plate.

In its place, Mr. Rowden has installed a dramatically altered marketing strategy. The chain has returned to the quality mnemonic of its square-hamburger roots (because at Wendy's they don't cut corners), concurrently targeted three distinct consumer groups, boosted its marketing budget, and moved for the first time into Internet advertising. And it skillfully handled what could have exploded into a major crisis with the chili-finger incident.

Mr. Rowden carefully chooses his words when he talks about the past. "The pillar marketing approach worked for us for many years," he said. "But the world changed."

Wendy's doesn't change easily, a fact anyone passing through its two-story lobby can't miss. In its brick-and-glass edifice hang large banners with famous Dave-isms. "Just be nice," says one. "Give something back," notes another.

Leaning back in his chair in his fourth-floor corner office, Mr. Rowden makes the effort sound more clean than it probably was. "Getting a culture shift to occur gets messy," he admitted. "There is a tendency to want to hang on [to old thinking]."

Gary Steele, exec VP of Wendy's main agency, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann WorldGroup, agreed that Mr. Rowden challenges the status quo. "In a meeting he'll say `here's what I feel as the outsider.' Without that history you can be clear on what you see."


Mr. Rowden came well prepared. Although Wendy's named him to the role in December, he didn't start officially until January. In that month, he pored over annual reports, market research and past marketing plans and built a fact-based case for change. He also met with key department heads, franchisees, former employees, vendors, analysts and marketing partners. From that he created a 300-day plan that he is now nearly halfway through.

Some of his discoveries: The number of competitors grew from 15 chains that generate a $1 billion in revenue to 24 by 2004. Technology has changed how consumers relate to their world and consume media and products. And rivals got smarter and better at reverse-engineering the product development that was Wendy's stronghold.

The most noticeable change is its weeks-old ad campaign that carved out a fresh personality for Wendy's, replacing the brand's folksy Midwestern persona with one that is still earnest, funny and approachable, but a tad more worldly. Wendy's is also realizing it needs to meet the industry trend for "big hamburgers," Mr. Rowden said, and, in a huge break from tradition, Wendy's is seriously looking to take another run at breakfast.

"I'm more pleased than I thought I would be," he said, assessing his performance in his first six months. "At the end of the day you hope to hell people will like it." Now that Wendy's new campaign has been well received and observers are applauding the marketing plan, "It feels to me like we have something that's got some legs," he said.

And if it doesn't? "We'll just blow it up."

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