Wendy's Sticks with Fresh Not Frozen Beef Message, Shakes Off Protest Heat

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Wendy's X Don C. at Twitter: New York City
Wendy's X Don C. at Twitter: New York City Credit: Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Wendy's

Wendy's efforts to be on people's minds and in people's stomachs appear to be working, as it says value offers have brought in new customers. But it's also being targeted by farm worker protests and purchase consideration among fast-food eaters is slipping, external data suggests.

The nation's third-largest burger chain is nearing the end of a limited-time $1 price on its Double Stack cheeseburger; continues to poke fun at McDonald's as the much larger competitor starts selling some of its burgers with fresh beef; and is playing on the March Madness basketball tournament bracket by suggesting people choose between fresh and frozen beef. All of this follows what was likely Wendy's priciest push of all, a Super Bowl spot that took aim at McDonald's use of frozen beef.

Still, with those and other marketing and PR efforts, Wendy's got some unwanted attention this week as a five-day protest culminated with a march outside the office of the company's chairman and biggest investor, Nelson Peltz. So far, Wendy's has managed to largely brush off the protest matter to focus on its marketing blitz.

Wendy's Double Stack
Wendy's Double Stack Credit: Wendy's

Consumer sentiment around Wendy's has remained pretty strong over the past month, according to data from YouGov BrandIndex, which interviews 4,800 people each weekday from a representative U.S. population sample. Buzz about Wendy's over the past 30 days peaked on March 12, as the company's March Madness-themed posts began appearing. However, purchase consideration among fast-food eaters has declined a bit since late February, when Wendy's began offering its double stack cheeseburger at $1 for a limited time. That discount -- the burger typically sells for an average price of $2.24 -- began Feb. 26 and ends Sunday, March 18.

Wendy's won't report sales results for the quarter until early May, but it says the $1 Double Stack has been a success.

"Not surprising, once we added the $1 Double Stack promotion, millions of customers showed up," Carl Loredo, VP brand and advertising, Wendy's, said in a statement. Wendy's being Wendy's, Loredo went on to tout that the Double Stack is still an option in a 4 for $4 value meal. "That's a great deal on a cheeseburger that's made with a ¼ lb. of fresh beef, more than the frozen beef on a Big Mac, at a better price," the statement read.

Wendy's 4 for $4 bundles have been around since October 2015. McDonald's, meanwhile, is stepping up marketing for its new $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu and has other deals with value messaging including a new two breakfast sandwiches for $4 deal. Wendy's works with WPP's VML on creative. McDonald's works with Omnicom Group's We Are Unlimited.

Wendy's trolled McDonald's on Twitter on March 6, aka "National Frozen Food Day," highlighting how many of McDonald's burgers will continue to be made with beef from the freezer.

The Golden Arches hasn't responded to Wendy's numerous taunts and won't start national advertising about fresh beef until more restaurants across the country begin selling it this spring.

Among fast-food eaters, the percentage who say they've heard positive buzz about Wendy's increased after the March 6 dose of "freezer burn" on Twitter, but the percentage who'd consider buying Wendy's the next time they go out for fast food has fallen, YouGov BrandIndex data show. On Thursday, Wendy's buzz score among fast-food eaters was at 20.5 percent, up from 13 percent a month earlier. But only 37.4 percent said they'd consider Wendy's for their next fast-food meal, down from 41.6 percent a month earlier.

"While perception may have risen a bit after the tweet, purchase consideration continued to drop for Wendy's," a spokesperson for YouGov BrandIndex said Friday.

This week, Wendy's has been stepping up its March Madness-themed marketing. In its second year as the official hamburger of the NCAA, Wendy's plans include a new line of sporty apparel, unveiled at Twitter's New York office late Thursday afternoon.

The line created with streetwear designer Don C. includes t-shirts featuring a red W on a basketball and the word Fresh on a jersey, meant to link Wendy's use of fresh beef to the idea of looking "fresh" on and off the basketball court. The swag is being given away through social media and at March Madness events over the next few weeks.

Protest heats up

Farm workers and their supporters have complained for years that Wendy's won't sign on to the Fair Food Program. The Fair Food Program was started in 2011 by a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers aiming to improve working conditions for Florida tomato farm workers. It has expanded since then beyond Florida and into other produce. And while major chains including McDonald's and Burger King have given their support, Wendy's still has not.

Coincidentally, as Wendy's was showing off its clothing Thursday, protestors were dozens of blocks away, marching toward the Park Ave. headquarters of Trian Partners and Trian Fund Management, trying to get the attention of Trian Founding Partner and CEO Nelson Peltz. This week, the protests even included some hunger strikes. Peltz's office deferred comment to Wendy's.

Wendy's maintains that it doesn't need to sign on to the Fair Food Program as it doesn't buy produce from the farms involved. In an Oct. 2016 blog post, Chief Communications Officer Liliana Esposito said Wendy's doesn't believe it should pay a fee to tomato harvesters on top of what it already pays for the produce. Also, it no longer buys tomatoes from Florida, getting them instead from other U.S. states and from Mexico.

"We will not join their program and we will not pay fees directly to them and we will certainly not compromise our commitment to our customers to deliver only the highest quality, ethically sourced products from Wendy's every day," the company said Friday.

Purchase Consideration: Fast-food Eaters
Buzz: Fast-food Eaters
Purchase Consideration: General Population
Buzz: General Population
Source: YouGov BrandIndex. Purchase consideration: the scale is measured from 0 to 100%. Buzz: the scale is measured from -100 to 100.
Charts by Chen Wu/Ad Age
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