The fast feeder's campaign showing red-wigged men declaring they "deserve a hot, juicy burger" kicked up dust among some franchisees in September -- including the daughter of founder Dave Thomas, for whom the chain is named. At the time, CMO Ian Rowden, the brain behind that $435 million campaign, gave it a spirited defense. But now that he is leaving Wendy's to return to his native Australia, some franchisees hope the effort will be revamped to put more of a spotlight on the product.
"When you've got the best food, you just need to tell people about it," said one franchisee. "The hero in the [original] ads wasn't Dave Thomas; it was the food. Every ad that drove sales starts with the food and ends with the food."
Still, the push, which has lifted sales and the company's profile among the young consumers who frequent fast-food joints, isn't likely to change that much. "We continue to evolve the campaign," said spokesman Bob Bertini. "Food has always been an important part of Wendy's advertising and will continue to be so. We continue to evolve our advertising because our customers continue to change and our approach needs to change as well."
Wendy's has good reason to stick with its strategy. "They'd been wandering around in the wilderness until they started kicking trees," said Darren Tristano, exec VP with restaurant consultant Technomic.
Even so, the fast feeder's path to growth is still a bit rocky. Despite six consecutive quarters of same-store-sales increases, Wendy's hasn't kept up with traffic of rival McDonald's, where November same-store sales increased 4.4% in the U.S. alone. Wendy's third-quarter same-store sales were up only 0.2% compared with a 4.1% increase the year before.
Mr. Rowden wasn't available for comment. In a statement, Wendy's President-CEO Kerrii Anderson said: "Ian was instrumental in reawakening the Wendy's brand and driving innovation." The chain will continue to work with Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi and MDC Partners-backed Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Mr. Bertini said.
In the meantime, Spencer Stuart is handling the search for a successor to Mr. Rowden, who was at Wendy's during some turbulent years.
He was named CMO in December 2004, nearly three years after the death of founder Dave Thomas. The company, together with longtime agency Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, had produced the unpopular "Mr. Wendy" campaign. Under Mr. Rowden's leadership, Wendy's rolled out new products, including a test of a breakfast menu, and extended nighttime hours. His first campaign, with McCann, was "Do what tastes right," a nod to the younger audience that had begun to feel alienated by the chain.
It wasn't enough. Some of the fast feeder's famously loyal franchisees organized a revolt in April 2006, demanding new advertising after 15 consecutive months of same-store-sales declines. Wendy's responded by moving its account to Saatchi.
Since then, the company, hammered by activist investor Nelson Peltz, has said it is considering a sale and other strategic options. Franchisee David Karam, along with Mr. Peltz, through his company Triarc, are among the bidders in the mix.
Just in time?
Those close to the company believe that might have been the biggest factor in Mr. Rowden's departure from the company. These days, three years is a relatively long term as CMO of a major advertiser. Leaving now allows Mr. Rowden to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of a board fight over a possible sale of the chain as it struggles to raise sales.
"He was very talented and could have gotten the job done," said a second franchisee. "I'm not sure why he didn't."
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Contributing: Rupal Parekh