Fast Feeders Forced to Branch Out Beyond Millennial Males

Broader Approach as Key Demographic Hit Hard by Recession

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The typical fast-food customer has long been young men. But they've been hit hard by the recession and have unemployment rates well above the national average. So are they still a viable marketing target for fast feeders?

In a word, yes, but more on that later. The restaurant industry has also been hit hard by the recession, and many fast feeders, such as McDonald's, Wendy's , and more recently, Burger King, have been targeting a broader audience in their national advertising, especially TV creative, in an effort to appeal to as many different people as possible and boost sales.

"With the economy as it is , marketers are trying to cast a wider net than they have in the past," said Eric Giandelone, director-food service research at Mintel.

Employment prospects for young people have been particularly dismal. For September, men between 20 and 24 years old faced a 15.8% unemployment rate in September, compared with the national average of 9.1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And they've curtailed the amount they dine out. In the year ended May 2011, people ages 18-24 on average visited 192 restaurants each, down 21.2% from 259 average visits in the year ended May 2006 -- a steeper drop than any other age group.

"It's just dangerous to have too narrow a focus" when it comes to targeting customers, said Dennis Lombardi, executive VP-foodservice strategies at WD Partners.

Burger King for years primarily targeted younger people, particularly men, with their eccentric use of the King character and other oddball creative. The chain earlier this year said it was retiring the King, and subsequent ads -- including one for its California Whopper -- by its new agency McGarryBowen have been product-centric, essentially appealing to a broader audience. (A campaign overhaul is expected at some point, but details have not been released.)

McDonald's has historically taken a broad audience approach, and that 's "probably why they're doing the best [in the burger category]. There might not be much need to have a segmented marketing approach when you have 14,000 locations," said Mr. Giandelone.

"We pride ourselves on being a food and beverage destination for everyone," said a spokeswoman for McDonald's. Technomic found that McDonald's usage is highest among Gen X consumers, which is now the age group most likely to have young families. McDonald's has been using various media, and even updated its Happy Meal and core menu with perceived healthier fare, to appeal to mothers.

But just because their unemployment rate is much higher than the national average doesn't mean that millennials will cut dining out altogether, especially at fast-food restaurants. "They have the highest unemployment rate, but they're still a group of people that want to do what they want to do," said Sara Monnette, director-consumer research at Technomic. Millennials are more likely to say they are purchasing less expensive items when they dine out -- such as items off a dollar or value menu -- while other generational groups are more likely to say they are cutting out visits to save money, said Ms. Monnette.

That's not to say that the core fast-food user will be abandoned as a marketing target . "I don't think they'll give up targeting younger people, but I think they're going to make more of an effort to appeal to others as well," said Mr. Giandelone.

Wendy's spokesman Denny Lynch said that even if creative changes to appeal to a broader audience, fast feeders "can be very targeted in the media [they] buy -- right at young adult males."

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