Long John Silver's eyes new booty: McDonald's

Cuts bait on full-service seafood restaurants to go after burger joints instead

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Long john silver's is looking to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Realizing it might be better off baiting fast-food customers bored with pizza and tacos than Red Lobster lovers, the Yum Brands chain is positioning itself as a burger alternative.

Long John Silver's leads the $1.4 billion seafood fast-food category with a 10.5% share, nearly double that of its nearest competitor, Captain D's. But it has traditionally included in its competitive set the larger, full-service seafood chains, which reeled in $8.6 billion in 2005 sales; the biggest catch of all, Red Lobster, holds 28% of the total.

The strategy largely overlooked McDonald's, which sold more than 325 million Filet-O-Fish sandwiches last year, according to a company spokeswoman. At that rate, Mickey D's could soon swamp Long John Silver's $780 million in annual sales.

"McDonald's is the big player on the block," said Don Gates, who joined Long John Silver's 18 months ago as director-marketing. "If you talk about where most fish is consumed today, it would be at McDonald's and Burger King. Frankly, just stealing a fraction would be enough to grow our business."

There's plenty of room for growth: Just 2.2% of people in a 2006 Sandelman & Associates National Quick-Track study ordered fish or seafood the last time they went out to eat-a drop in the bucket compared to pizza, at 23.4%, and burgers, at 22.2%.

So Long John Silver's is launching its biggest media campaign ever to tell fast-food customers to "Throw boring overboard." Mr. Gates wouldn't confirm spending, but the chain spent $22 million in measured media through the first 11 months of 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

"We've taken the gloves off a bit more," said Ken Fill, senior VP- management director at Long John Silver's shop, Element 79, Chicago. (WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia, New York, handles national buying, and Empower Media Marketing, Cincinnati, handles local media buying.) "We realized the people that best offered an alternative for growth were people that came here occasionally but are heavy fast-food users."

To win over Filet-O-Fish fans, it's introducing a hand-cut, whole filet of premium flounder to set itself apart from the square, pressed-fish patties sold elsewhere. "We started our campaign with real Alaskan flounder, not the same mystery fish sold at the big burger joints," Mr. Gates said. "We call them fish pretenders."

The campaign showcases the filet by showing fishermen at sea unloading their catch only to discover square fish. "That ain't natural," one longshoreman says. "They're fish patties," says another. "They fit better in a burger bun." A third man eating a Long John Silver's filet points to the square fish and says, "Know what the best part is? It ain't that."
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