Milkshake Marketer Boasts Thousands of Locations, Low Awareness

F'real Launches First Ad Campaign in Bid to Attract New Consumers

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F'real Foods is getting serious about marketing its milkshakes, debuting the first ad campaign in its ten year history.

Over the last 10 years, the beverage company has installed self-serve milkshake blenders in 10,000 convenience stores and college campuses across the U.S. and Canada. It positions itself as an alternative to the fast food milkshake, allowing consumers to grab a flavor from the attached freezer, play with the touch-screen menu and blend shakes to their liking.

But consumer adoption has been slow. Unaided awareness for F'real is only at 1%, according to Stephanie Brendel, vp-marketing for the brand. "We've not had a lot of geographic density for us to really get out of the stores and get the brand in consumers' minds before they walk in," she said.

That's about to change. F'real hired Muhtayzik Hoffer for its first advertising campaign, which is debuting in Midwest test markets. The $1 million campaign includes a :30 commercial and a :45 online video, Pandora radio spots and online and mobile banners produced in conjunction with John Kricfalusi, creator of the 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon "Ren & Stimpy."

F'real will test how well the campaign drives awareness and trial in three markets this summer -- Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; and Des Moines, Iowa -- where F'real will also be present at major league baseball games and local events, in an effort to reach its target consumers, aged 13 to 22. Based on performance, F'real plans to expand the campaign to more cities next year to support the addition of another 10,000 F'real stations in the next three to five years.

Ad Age: Your competitors are quick-service restaurants, which control the milkshake segment. How big do you consider the milkshake market to be, and how does your brand personality differentiate you?

Ms. Brendel: This is where we walk a little bit of a tightrope here. Pretty much everyone enjoys a good milkshake. We do have a target market that's much younger. But we don't want to offend anybody, so we're really trying to convey a personality that is social, making people feel like they belong. There's some wholesomeness. We're trying to balance that by being slightly irreverent, so smart and funny but not offensive in any way, and then a feeling of happiness.

The milkshake market, if you look at it from a serving standpoint, there are a billion servings of milkshakes just in the U.S. that are served every year. When you look at where those are coming from, the top nine sellers of milkshakes are quick-serve restaurants, such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Sonic and Dairy Queen. One way we differentiate is product quality, and that's the biggest thing, in that our product is ice cream and milk. We're not made from a mix.

Ad Age: Years ago, people called your shakes "Wawa shakes" based on the convenience store where they bought them. What sort of brand building did you do to get away from that, and how will you get the name "F'real" in consumers' minds?

Ms. Brendel: Earlier in our development, Wawa had a huge marketing campaign just to let people know they had milkshakes. And if you've ever been to a Wawa store, everything is really branded Wawa. And the branding on our cups really wasn't that strong. So people just started calling them the Wawa shake. But in places where we've gotten a foothold of distribution in the past three years or so, F'real is definitely the name that people walk away with now when they have one of our products.

We did change the packaging. We've tried to make a little store-within-a-store to let consumers know that when you walk into a convenience store, there's a place in that store called a Blending Bar where you blend milkshakes. We had a project last year where we visited all of our installed blending bases, which was nearly 8,000 locations at the time, and we installed signage and point-of-sale around them to bring that concept to life.

For the last couple years, we've been experimenting with sampling out of the stores. So we've got a truck that's got eight blenders attached to it, and we sample our product on the East Coast, where we really strengthened distribution a couple years ago.

Stephanie Brendel
Stephanie Brendel

Ad Age: What challenges are facing F'real right now?

Ms. Brendel: Our biggest challenge is awareness. And the fact that we are in all 50 states in the U.S. and Canada, but our unaided awareness is less than 1%. It's because of the way that we've grown up. We don't just go and get entire distribution and an entire chain. They usually put our program in -- it takes a lot of space -- when they're remodeling stores. The other challenge is just indigenous to the c-store channel. Eighty percent of consumers know what they want to buy and already have a decision made when they walk in that store. And then they only spend 120 seconds in the store, just two minutes. They're not there expecting to learn about a new brand or an experience.

Ad Age: How did you select the test markets for the ad campaign?

Ms. Brendel: We actually were looking for markets where we had a different level of development. We picked one below average (Cleveland, Ohio), one average (Harrisburg, Penn.), and one above average (Des Moines, Iowa). And we also picked those markets because we have a lot of blenders in those markets that actually talk to us. Every night, our newest blender model lets us know how many shakes were blended those days. So we get instant feedback on the effectiveness of the marketing that we're doing there. ... We were looking for markets that were affordable, from a media standpoint, and where we had some strong partners in those markets from a customer standpoint.

Ad Age: How was working with MuhTayZik Hoffer and John Kricfalusi?

Ms. Brendel: We've worked with a lot agencies over my career, and I do find MuhTayZik Hoffer to be very collaborative. ... To break through is really hard, and using humor to do that is key. MuhTayZik brought John Kricfalusi in. We would've never thought, on our own, to reach out to him.

In over 3,000 stores, our newest model has a touch-screen on it that plays videos to attract consumers' attention, to explain the brand, how to use the machine, etc. John is developing creative for those blenders that will be in all of our stores. The challenge that I mentioned about being relevant to younger people but also not offending the old, the work that he does allows that to happen quite naturally. I think he's the perfect person to build that bridge.

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