New faces at Red Lobster

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Seafood chain Red Lobster is getting a new exec VP-marketing by way of the stork.

The Darden Restaurants unit today names Mark McCallum, former president of the North American division of Vlasic Foods International, to the post. He succeeds Wyman Roberts, who left the company in January. The 44-year-old Australian will join Red Lobster in late July.

"Mark has broad general management experience and has helped build some of the strongest brands in packaged goods," said Dick Rivera, president of Red Lobster. "We know Mark will strengthen Red Lobster's leading brand position."

Mr. McCallum was responsible for Vlasic condiments, Swanson frozen foods, and Open Pit sauces at Vlasic, which was spun off from Campbell Soup Co. in 1998 after years of marketing neglect. The company's plan to rebuild ultimately failed. Vlasic filed for bankruptcy and in May completed the sale of its assets to Pinnacle Foods Corp.

"We got a winning player from a losing team," said a Red Lobster spokesman.

Earlier in his career, Mr. McCallum was VP-marketing for Campbell's Fresh and Sanwa prepared foods unit and marketing director for Cadbury Schweppes and group brand manager for General Foods Corp.

At the same time, the seafood restaurant is also introducing another new employee of sorts. "Chef Ned" makes his debut today in fresh advertising from Euro RSCG McConnaughy Tatham, Chicago, kicking off the chain's inauguaral eight-week Festival of Crab promotion running in the chain's fiscal first quarter.

After a spot launched in the November "Go Overboard" campaign in which a chef emerged from the ocean with a live lobster drew strong response, the marketer realized the chef idea had, er, legs. "The chef ad was among the top two commercials we've ever tested," said Ken Mills, VP-marketing. "It was the second-highest scoring in idea communication, likability and intent to visit."

Most popular was the Lobsterfest spot where the lobsters are high-tailing it along the ocean floor to the "Nowhere to Run" tune by Martha and the Vandellas.

"We learned immediately that we were onto a big idea," Mr. Mills said. "The chef very graphically communicates Red Lobster's passion for seafood with his passion, expertise and love of seafood."

Dressed in the traditional white uniform, Chef Ned appears in a variety of non-kitchen scenarios where he waxes on the virtues of crab. A 30-second spot opens with a tour boat as a voice bellows from a public address system that passengers can see the natural habitat of crab on the starboard side of the boat. The voice then explains little-known facts about certain crab species: for example, that they can be stuffed into Portabello mushrooms with beurre blanc sauce. Passengers beam with the news. The camera cuts to the boat captain who says, "You're not the regular guy," to which the quirky cook responds, "No, I'm a chef at Red Lobster. I just do this for fun."

Two 15-second spots continue Ned's adventures. Three radio spots also starring the chef mark the first time in years that the radio effort was aligned with the TV component, Mr. Mills said.

This flight of creative represents about one-fourth of the company's $80 million annual media spending and will run throughout the summer on network and cable TV stations. About $60 million of the chain's total annual media budget is dedicated to TV, while the rest goes toward radio.

Mr. Mills wouldn't divulge other promotional plans centered on the chef character but teased, "If this campaign is a success we'll look at integrating our passionate chef in more of our marketing mix."

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