Dave Disciples Flip Wigs Over Trendy Wendy

Despite Seeming Success of Saatchi Campaign, the Family Thomas Fumes

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Dave's way was the wrong way.

That's the bottom line for the marketing team at Wendy's, which says it is finally moving the sales needle with a quirky ad campaign that has consumers talking but Dave Thomas' family squawking.
Wigging out: The original Wendy (r.) does not approve of the men-in-red-braids ads.
Wigging out: The original Wendy (r.) does not approve of the men-in-red-braids ads. Credit: Kiichiro Satu
There are several sources of conflict, including the chain's decision to start serving breakfast -- a no-no under the Mr. Thomas. But the main bone of contention is the fast feeder's campaign showing young men in red-braided wigs reminiscent of the company's brand icon kicking trees and demanding, "I deserve a hot, juicy burger."

That's triggered a hot, juicy brawl at a company that spent $435 million on advertising last year.

The daughter of the chain's late founder Dave Thomas publicly slammed the ads in The Wall Street Journal as a personal affront (Melinda Lou Thomas -- better known as Wendy -- auditioned to appear in the new campaign, but Wendy's spokesperson Bob Bertini said consumer response to Ms. Thomas' screen test "was not positive.") Her sister, Pam Farber, also denounced the direction, and according to the Journal, Mr. Thomas' widow, Lorraine, has called for Chief Marketing Officer Ian Rowden's ouster. (Despite numerous attempts, the family couldn't be reached for comment.)

Minor influence
But since the family now owns about 15 restaurants (out of 6,000) and no longer holds a meaningful percentage of the company, its opinion doesn't weigh heavily.

And as far as Wendy's is concerned, it's just too bad that the person who made the red braids synonymous with the brand finds its campaign offensive.

Here's why: The "That's Right" campaign has achieved better awareness, recall and purchase intent in eight weeks than the previous campaign -- "Do What Tastes Right" -- got in 18 months, the company said. Wendy's is riding 13 consecutive months of same-store sales growth, although in May, June and July increases were less than 1%. And the burger chain says more than three-quarters of consumers, 76%, now readily associate the ad, "Kicking Trees," with Wendy's.

A conflict between the tried-and-true (the folksy advertising that marked Dave's way) and harder-edged marketing that tickles today's fast-feeding YouTubers isn't unusual in the burger business. Franchisees, who tend to favor inoffensive advertising loaded with hot-off-the-griddle product shots, all but revolted over Burger King's creepy king coming to life in marketing -- that is, until sales began to creep up. The difference with Wendy's is that the source of opposition is coming from the family of a revered founder.

Job No. 1
For his part, Mr. Rowden said he's focusing on the customer in his efforts to fix Wendy's marketing and that "everything else is just noise."
Wendy's sales
Source: Wendy's. 1. Red wig campaign breaks

Note: Wendy's says the reason for the low growth in the last few months is that it lagged behind competitors with raising prices because of high commodity costs.

This isn't the first time Wendy's has put men in red wigs, either. When the chain's first drive-thru opened in the '70s, Wendy's promoted the event by having workers don red braids. "That red wig is a very big piece of iconography for this brand," said Mr. Rowden. "This is just a more current, contemporary way of utilizing it."

Since Mr. Thomas passed away in 2002, Wendy's has struggled to develop ads without its trusty star. Campaigns such as "Mr. Wendy's" managed to alienate the loyal customer base while failing to connect with younger consumers who didn't grow up drinking Frosties.

"What Dave built was a fast-food place that wasn't a fast-food place," said one insider. "But when Dave died, they froze the place in amber."

The chain became slow to innovate and the competition caught up quickly. Wendy's also had a hard time reaching younger consumers.

Renewing the promise
Mr. Rowden arrived in 2005 with the task of turning Wendy's marketing around. His first campaign was "Do what tastes right," which he maintains was a successful campaign, and necessary to renew the chain's promise of better quality.

He then replaced longtime ad firm McCann Worldgroup with Saatchi & Saatchi, and worked closely with Saatchi CEO and Lovemarks proponent Kevin Roberts to develop the latest ads, which first aired in May.

"The red wig's working with consumers ... and many franchisees," Mr. Roberts said. "It's a great standout visualization of the Wendy's 'That's right' promise."

According to TiVo research, Wendy's "Kicking Trees" ad was the most watched in June. YouTube users have been posting homemade versions of the commercial.

Industry professionals are also embracing "Trees." Darren Tristano, exec VP of Technomic, said his food-industry research group used the Wendy's commercial as an example of the right way to target Generation Y at a recent conference, and added that Wendy's breakfast service should also pay heavy dividends once some of the kinks are worked out. There have been some problems with menu boards, he said.

"Anytime you can add another part of the day, you're going to get your existing customers to come in for another meal," Mr. Tristano said. "And you're going to pick up some new customers just because of the convenience."

Sale could still happen
Despite all this purported progress, however, Wendy's could still be sold.

Activist investor Nelson Peltz owns nearly 10% of the chain through his investment company, Triarc. Last week, Triarc said it had a confidentiality agreement with Wendy's to review financial data to put together a possible bid. Triarc didn't return calls for comment.
Wendy's Chief Marketing Officer Ian Rowden
Wendy's Chief Marketing Officer Ian Rowden

Mr. Peltz has already stepped down from the board of Arby's to prevent conflicts of interest.

If Mr. Peltz does take the reins, Saatchi and project agency Kirshenbaum Bond could be on the ropes. Triarc shifted agency accounts after buying Snapple in 1997.

By some accounts, Mr. Rowden's job is also in jeopardy. "When you talk to Ian, he says he's a change agent and all change agents eventually need to move on or die on the cross that they are dragging," said one person close to the account. "He talks like a guy soon to be moving on."

Mr. Rowden denied he has any plan to leave Wendy's.
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