Fast Feeders Serve Up Fresh Buzzwords

Chains Attempt to Imply 'Health' Without Turning Off Consumers, Upsetting Regulators

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Wholesome. Fresh. Natural. Local. Premium. Those are the food-marketing buzzwords that have gained on phrases like low-fat, low-carb and low-calorie. For fast feeders, the benefits are two-fold -- the descriptors don't bring the regulatory scrutiny other health-related claims do and, even better, consumers are buying into the hype.

"More traditional health claims on the menu tend to get an adverse reaction by the customer because they associate healthy claims like low-fat with less taste," said Darren Tristano, exec VP at Technomic. "Newer descriptions are designed around the idea that the food is better for you, is of better quality, but is still food. When you start to say low-fat or low-carb, consumers think of diet."

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. Tristano.

"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 choose."

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 about eating."

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 indulgent item.

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 consumers.

"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 "wholesome."

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 NPD.

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 request.

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 benefits.

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