Buzzwords such as low-fat, low-carb and low-calorie were
previously popular because consumers were looking for ways to lose
weight. But, according to Mr. Tristano, today's consumers are more
educated about nutrition and are looking for ways to live healthier
lifestyles as opposed to just dieting.
Words such as "wholesome" and "fresh" are also vague, which
could be a problem for consumers, but a boon for marketers --
there's no set definition for these words in marketing, said Mr.
"That's the strategy behind this level of promotion," he said.
"It's focusing on buzzwords that are vague but that still evoke a
positive feeling toward the food and toward the restaurants. The
perception is driving the reality."
"Any time operators can position themselves as healthy, they
should," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant-industry analyst at NPD
Group. "But they have to be careful with the words they
Take Arby's , part of the Wendy's /Arby's Group until the parent
company divests the chain. It's one of the more recent fast feeders
to position itself with buzzwords such as "wholesome" and
"premium," and last week launched a new campaign, the first for its
agency, Omnicom's BBDO Worldwide,
centered on the idea that Arby's has wholesome food that puts
people in a good mood. Arby's declined to comment.
"This campaign is focused on our target audience, Balance
Seekers, who want and need to eat fast food because of their busy
lifestyles, but do not want to feel guilty about eating it," Arby's
CMO Steve Davis said in a statement. "They're telling us that
Arby's has something over other fast-food restaurants ... a balance
of higher quality, more wholesome food that they can feel good
The campaign highlights the Angus Three Cheese & Bacon
sandwich, described by Arby's as its first premium Angus-beef
offering. Wholesome maybe, but certainly not healthful.
Mr. Tristano said that while many consumers don't think Arby's
provides fresh food, the chain is "trying to promote the fact that
they serve freshly sliced meat. They're not changing what they do;
they're changing the way they promote what they do."
Then there's Subway, whose slogan is "Eat Fresh." Mr. Tristano
pointed out that it has the reputation for being one of the
more-healthful fast feeders on the market. Patrons can customize
sandwiches for healthful options, but it's just as easy to order an
Even so, the message resonates with many consumers. Ms. Riggs
said that in the case of Subway, consumers define the chain as
offering fresh, quality food in part because consumers can see the
sandwiches being made in front of them. She added that in a recent
NPD study, where survey subjects were shown a list of fast-food
restaurants, 33% of them chose Subway -- a higher percentage than
the other restaurants listed -- when they are looking to eat a
healthful lunch or dinner.
Ms. Riggs said Wendy's , because of its "fresh, never frozen"
and "you know when it's real" messaging, and McDonald's, due in
large part to its oatmeal, accompanied by a "bowl full of
wholesome" positioning, also resonate with health-conscious
"McDonald's has been doing a lot in terms of having perceived
healthy options on their menu, thanks to their oatmeal and
smoothies. Those products appeal to women, and they're not even the
heaviest users in the morning at McDonald's." Of course, as The New
York Times' Mark Bittman pointed out last week, an order of
McDonald's oatmeal "contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and
only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald's cheeseburger or Egg
McMuffin" -- foodstuffs few consumers would categorize as
Still, oatmeal in particular is a fast-growing item. From 2009
to 2010, the number of oatmeal servings at fast-food restaurants
jumped to 108 million from 88 million in 2007, or 23%, according to
Fast feeders run a risk when trying to position themselves with
healthful options -- something they're not known for, historically.
If they place more attention on their ostensibly healthful options,
they could be risking the success of their core menu items. "They
could be making a mistake by trying to appeal to everybody," said
Al Ries, chairman of marketing consultancy Ries & Ries. "It's
going to take a long time, but we are definitely moving toward
healthy, and those companies that are trying to offer both are
destroying what they've been known for."
On the horizon is the impending federally-mandated menu-labeling
for all restaurant chains with more than 20 locations. Restaurants
will be required to list calorie counts on all menus, and must be
able to provide additional nutrition information upon consumer
It's unlikely the Federal Trade Commission will crack down on
marketers using these buzzwords, unless it views the advertising as
deceptive, or if the fast feeders make questionable claims about
health benefits. The FTC in 2004 settled charges with KFC for
deceptive advertising after the fast feeder ran ads touting the
relative health and weight-loss benefits of its fried chicken. More
recently, the FTC has gone after juice-maker Pom Wonderful for
making false claims that its products will prevent or treat heart
disease and prostate cancer, as well as Dannon's Activia yogurt
brand for advertising that allegedly exaggerated its health