'Mr. Wendy' Debuts Two Years After Dave Thomas' Death

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- With a bullhorn clenched in his fist and an "I Love Wendy's" button pinned to his chest, Wendy's International's latest
The new Mr. Wendy, a self-appointed zealot for the hamburger chain, makes his debut later this week in TV ads.

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version of a brand spokesman is about to be set loose.

Dubbed "Mr. Wendy," the new advertising character plays the role of a self-appointed Wendy's zealot who buttonholes people to talk up the hamburger chain's virtues. He is portrayed as operating without the permission of the fast-food corporation he promotes.

'Unconventional champion'
Don Calhoon, executive vice president for marketing at Wendy's, said the new brand spokesman is "a sort of new but unconventional champion" who "doesn't follow the 'rules' of a spokesperson."

The new character takes the stage two years after the death of Wendy's iconic founder, Dave Thomas.

Mr. Calhoon acknowledged that some may be tempted to view the Mr. Wendy character as a replacement for the late Mr. Thomas and attempt direct comparisons. But, he said, "we could certainly never replace Dave or would try to. Dave was the official spokesperson and the founder of our company. He stood for all that Wendy's was about. Mr. Wendy couldn't be further from that if he tried. People will make whatever comparisons but that is just not it at all."

The Mr. Wendy campaign's first TV spot is staged in front of the chain's Dublin, Ohio, headquarters. He reads a letter from the company's legal department telling him to cease and desist his activities. Undeterred, the character continues his mission to challenge consumers to stop compromising and to go to Wendy's.

William Shatner
Six additional spots follow him to places ranging from a mall to a Hollywood party. At that party, he and his wife show up with a dozen salads, as William Shatner asks if the odd guest is with Wendy's. "Unofficially," replies Mr. Wendy, to which Mr. Shatner questions what that means. Mrs. Wendy responds, "It's complicated."

The campaign, created by Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, will also include print advertising, presented as Mr. Wendy's own homemade ads. Radio spots will feature his own brand of poetry. Interactively, a Mr. Wendy fan club Web site will encourage consumers to send in their own Wendy's stories.

"I was looking for a much stronger level of continuity and consistency in our advertising," Mr. Calhoon said, noting how the chain in the past has used ideas with a long shelf life rather than a series of self-contained ads. In recent years the advertising did a "good job of building awareness for the product," but that the bigger opportunity was to leverage the brand, he said. "With Mr. Wendy, he is passionate about Wendy's first and then whatever the product is second, and to me that is the bigger thought."

Brand erosion
The Wendy's brand has suffered some erosion in its strength and stature since Mr. Thomas' death, according to one industry observer who has tracked the competitive performance of the major burger chains. "They've lost their voice and personality," the executive said.

"They certainly never rekindled the spark that Dave created as an ad icon, but who would?" agreed Bob Goldin, vice president of food industry consultant Technomic, adding the most recent campaign hasn't been memorable. "How do you replace Dave with a campaign as powerful as that was?"

Mr. Calhoon disputed any evidence of erosion in the Wendy's brand, noting that the chain's performance has been strong and that it has been first to bring to market many new ideas, such as an entree salads line that kicked off a slew of imitators in 2002.

Wendy's performance has slipped some as the chain ended 2003 with domestic same-store sales up 0.9%, compared to a 4.7% gain in 2002. The fourth quarter of 2003 was especially strong, however, with the company posting an 8.6% same-store sales boost. Moreover, Mr. Goldin speculated that Wendy's could eclipse ailing Burger King Corp. as the No. 2 burger chain within a couple of years.

Dave Thomas posters
Meanwhile, Wendy's clearly has no plans to diminish Mr. Thomas's position as a highly visible corporate symbol. In fact, Wendy's in June will unveil a fresh set of Mr. Thomas posters to replace those that were installed after his death.

In the weeks that followed Mr. Thomas' death, speculation swirled over how the company would replace the man that had become the advertising industry's most recognizable spokesman. Indeed, with more than 800 spots starring Mr. Thomas, finding an adequate way to communicate the brand essence and personality was a challenge. Management decided to focus on its hometown of Dublin, Ohio, as the "closest image and connection" to Mr. Thomas the company could create. That year the company had its best ever performance and broke sales records behind the campaign, dubbed "It's better here."

Andrew Barish, restaurant analyst for Banc of America Securities, in a Feb. 2 note to investors wrote, "We continue to believe Wendy's is one of the best-positioned quick service restaurant companies with leading customer and performance and metrics in many areas." But, he noted, "that is also part of the problem in that the business has been run so well that incremental improvements come more gradually and external factors can have an impact on the business."

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