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Don Calhoon still gets mad when he thinks about the doom that business pundits predicted for Wendy's International following the January 2002 death of founder Dave Thomas.

"All the experts came out of the woodwork and took their shots," says Mr. Calhoon, exec VP-marketing at Wendy's. "I think two years later we've proved every one of them wrong."

In 2002, Wendy's rolled out its Garden Sensations line of premium salads with cross-platform marketing via AOL Time Warner, and launched its first national Hispanic ad effort through the Vidal Partnership, New York. Month after month, Wendy's posted same-store sales increases ranging from 3.9% to 7.1% while overlapping positive sales in prior years. When the chain in 2003 faced regrouped competition from McDonald's Corp. and Burger King Corp., Wendy's posted its first same-store sales declines in years, but investors and customers remained loyal.

In fact, the year following Mr. Thomas' passing was "the single greatest year in this company," counters Mr. Calhoon, 52. "That's a tribute to Dave."

It's also a testament to how the Wendy's marketing chief has kept "Dave's Way" top of mind in leading the department.

During Wendy's most critical year, Mr. Calhoon shifted his $280 million account to Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, from Cordiant Communications Group's Bates Worldwide after Bates unbundled its media group. "Normally [if] you make a change like that after 15 years, it's going to cost you 12 to 18 months. That's not the case here," Mr. Calhoon says.

With a committed team in place, the other half of his marketing approach centers on how to think about the business. Among agencies and at Wendy's home base of Dublin, Ohio, Mr. Calhoon is known for his "media, message and creative" mantra.

"Everything we do will touch one of those buckets, and only when all three are working at the highest levels, will we get the most out of everything we're doing," he says.

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