Wild Wings take off

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Buffalo Wild Wings is trying to get a leg up on competitors with a branding effort from Periscope, Minneapolis.

Since the original recipe for the hot-spiced chicken wings first emerged in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, the nibbles have become a staple on appetizer menus. Buffalo Wild Wings, a Minneapolis company with 141 locations in 25 states, has seized on that popularity to become the first major restaurant chain built around the concept of chicken wings. Others, however, are encroaching.

"I think we're seeing the whole Buffalo flavor profile emerging on menus overall," said Kate Gamewell, a restaurant consultant with Technomic, who added that the bold, spicy flavor has been picking up steam over the past two years. "We're seeing it emerge on some of our leading casual-dining chains as well, [with variations] including Buffalo-flavored fried calamari." The wings are so popular fast-feeders like McDonald's and Pizza Hut offer them.

NPD Group VP Harry Balzer thinks that the general popularity of fried chicken parts is the likely driver of the wings craze. Since 1996, sales of chicken wings have taken off, with growth peaking in 1998 with a 10% sales gain over the prior year. Although growth slowed to 2% last year, "This is a product with increasing demand," said Mr. Balzer, who attributes the slowdown to a softness of the industry overall.

Undaunted, Buffalo Wild Wings is staking its claim. Beginning with a five-city test, its $4 million to $6 million effort will expand to 57 additional markets Sept. 1. Periscope began working with the chain, which is concentrated in college towns and sells mainly beer and wings, just over two years ago. This, however, marks Buffalo Hot Wings' first branding effort.

After a humble start at Ohio State University in 1982, and near bankruptcy in 1996, the privately held chain is finally flying high. U.S. sales broke $173 million in 2000, up 36% over 1999, ranking it No. 9 of the 10-fastest growing chains measured by Technomic. Buffalo Wild Wings shared the designation with the likes of Panera Bread and Darden Restaurants' Bahama Breeze.

Periscope created three TV spots to capture the restaurant's appeal to its core users. Built around the tagline "Wings, beer, sports-all the essentials," the spots target males 21 to 34.

The first ad shows a group of guys watching a game. After five hours, one announces he's going to take a shower. He goes into the bathroom and cleans up at the sink. In another spot a mail carrier, trying to complete a delivery at the bar, asks "Where's Mitch?" The guys respond, "He moved," and the camera cuts to him with a young woman at another table.

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