Here's Our Beef: Wendy's Too Quick to Spike Branding

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Hate it or love it, the Wendy's red-wig campaign gave the burger chain something it hadn't since Dave Thomas reigned: a personality. Sure, it was a weird, creepy personality, and it borrowed a bit too much from Burger King's look, but it was a personality nonetheless, and it was exactly what Wendy's hired Saatchi & Saatchi to do a year ago.

Last week's franchisee-driven decision to sideline Saatchi, toss the wig ads -- which featured men wearing the famous red pigtails in absurd situations -- and replace them with what looks to be a ho-hum product-centric campaign is indicative of a worrying trend in today's marketing scene: the failure of corporations to stand by their brands. All too often we report the same story. Big Marketer X hires Hot Agency Y to breathe some life into a bedraggled brand. Six months later, when big sales spikes haven't come, Hot Agency Y is in hot water. And the first thing to be kicked to the curb is the brand.

This is especially common at decentralized marketing organizations, such as those at fast-food chains and automakers, where franchisees and dealers concerned mainly with ringing registers and moving metal wield enormous power. Sales are important, but situations where short-term priorities seem to be the only priorities is a problem especially in these categories, prone as they are to descending into price-slashing that does nothing for the bottom line. In short, a bit of brand would do them good -- as it does any company who wants to be able to charge premium prices and, perhaps more important, cultivate a customer base that's loyal.

We know that corporate marketers are under intense pressure to help their CEOs produce positive quarterly results, but there has to be some balance between keeping Wall Street happy and building a brand that can thrive in the long term, that will be less susceptible to price wars, that is something consumers want to engage with. Whether Wendy's was on the road to that, we'll never know. Instead of provocative storytelling we have this to look forward to: a 15-second spot that treats a fish-filet sandwich like a European automobile, even flashing a shot of an arctic scene to suggest its origins.

Wendy's and the men and women who operate its stores are right to be proud of their products -- though, we'd contend, the promise of the Baconator is undercut by wilted strips -- but as the category leaders have learned, it takes more than loving product shots to make it in the long haul.
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