Wendy’s, now the No. 2 U.S. burger chain, is back with a big March Madness play
Wendy’s 2020 breakfast rollout was muted by the start of the pandemic yet still spelled success for the chain, which grew U.S. sales last year and swiped the No. 2 fast-food burger spot away from Burger King.
Now, Wendy’s is back with an updated breakfast and basketball-themed campaign that will progress during and after the NCAA March Madness tournament.
Last March, like many basketball fans, Wendy’s Chief Marketing Officer Carl Loredo was concerned about COVID-19 and disappointed that his college team—in his case, the Texas Longhorns—wasn't be able to compete as the tournament had been canceled. It also meant Wendy’s, an NCAA sponsor since 2017, had to rethink its marketing approach.
“It was this week last year that we were all beginning to come to grips with the realities of COVID, and the world did change,” Loredo says on the latest episode of Ad Age’s “Marketer’s Brief” podcast.
By late March 2020, Wendy's pulled back on its big breakfast push. Still, breakfast “was one of the stalwarts of the brand, even despite the challenges that we went through last year,” says Loredo.
Breakfast accounted for 7% of Wendy’s sales at the end of 2020. The chain aims for breakfast to grow 30% this year, aided by plenty of marketing, and comprise 10% of its sales by the end of 2022.
Wendy’s is now telling its breakfast story in a spot featuring former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller moving into a Wendy’s in Indianapolis to serve as his home during March Madness, which is taking place in the city.
“There’s just going to be so much pent-up energy we could probably be running these games at 5 a.m. and everybody would be all over them because they’re just so excited to have March Madness,” says Loredo.
Wendy’s surpassed Burger King in U.S. systemwide sales in 2020 and became the new distant No. 2 burger-focused chain behind market leader McDonald’s. Wendy’s U.S. systemwide sales rose 4.8% in 2020, to $10.23 billion, while Burger King’s U.S. systemwide sales fell 5.4% to nearly $9.66 billion. McDonald’s is still the dominant player, with U.S. systemwide sales exceeding $40 billion that were flat last year.
This year, Wendy's is busy touting itself as the official breakfast of the NCAA.
“We love this partnership with the NCAA. It was extended for another year given what happened last year, but we see this moving well beyond even this contract term,” says Loredo.
In past years, Wendy’s would give out food to fans at the games. This year, for the first time, it is offering food to the players in the tournament.
Other March Madness plans include free honey butter chicken biscuit sandwiches, March 18 to 20; various deals with third-party delivery providers; and Twitter watch parties. “it’s really about finding ways to engage with consumers along the journey for the tournament," says Loredo.
Wendy’s campaign will continue with a spot featuring Miller with Kenny Smith set to begin airing on March 15. Smith stops by Miller's bubble at Wendy's after making a "wrong choice" for breakfast, and Miller won't let him in.
A third spot will run starting April 5, showing Miller preparing to move out of his bubble now that the tournament has ended. But he chooses to stay because of a $1.99 honey butter chicken biscuit sandwich that is scheduled for April 1 through May 2.
Breakfast is the focus of current Wendy’s marketing, but other times of the day remain critical. The chain continues to offer its value-priced 4 for $4 deal that it has sold since 2015, and plans to keep that offer, which has a loyal following. It has also been rolling out more premium items such as the current jalapeño popper chicken sandwich and the pretzel bacon pub burger.
Basketball is not the only sport where Wendy’s plays. It also sponsors the X Games and Fan Controlled Football. It has been popping up in its own way in games such as Fortnite, Mario Kart and Animal Crossing, and more recently in Street Fighter and Minecraft. And in December it ran a “Never Stop Gaming” promotion with Uber Eats, selling meals promoted by gamers.
“We’re actually causing enough havoc and generating enough energy with the gamers that we’re essentially one of the biggest streamers on Twitch,” says Loredo.
Some developers have had to change the games, says Loredo, citing Fortnite, because people were playing the game Wendy’s way.
Wendy’s agencies include VMLY&R, Spark Foundry, The Marketing Arm and Ketchum.