Sonic, Out To Court Females, Mixes Salads Into Advertising

Having introduced a salad option only this past spring, Sonic Drive-In execs admit they’re late to the healthy-fare party. Now, the chain—known for its carhops, milkshakes and tater tots—is trying to remain competitive with the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King by launching a campaign targeting the people most likely to buy the new item: women.

The work, by independent Barkley Evergreen & Partners in Kansas City, Mo., breaks on national cable networks this week. It apes Sonic’s year-old, reality-TV-inspired “Two Guys” effort, which features unscripted scenes of two male customers interacting with Sonic employees and each other. (For example, one recent spot shows the men speaking in British accents as they discuss how a miniature banana split might talk.) The campaign won a silver national Addy award earlier this year.

Owing to the difference in humor between men and women, the new effort only retains some of the characteristics of the “Two Guys” spots, said Brian Brooker, CEO and chief creative officer of BE&P. While the new spots show two women improvising in a more everyday manner, they are shown eating in an office, and the discussion centers more around their relationships to the food and each other. “My body told me to eat a lot more salads,” says one. The other: “My body yelled at me. ‘You better put down that doughnut, Angela!’ ” The spots use the company’s tagline, “It’s Sonic good.”

“The guys’ humor tended to be more broad or random,” said Brooker.

“I think it’s pretty intuitive,” said Greg Haflich, vp of marketing at Tulsa, Okla.-based Sonic. “Women are the mobile consumers who have the money to spend. Plus, they have a higher ticket average because they tend to have other people with them in the car.”

Sonic’s campaign extension also provides the chain with the ability to turn its popular “Two Guys” effort into a more cohesive marketing program, Brooker said. “This allows all the work to have a campaign feel,” he said.

Sonic—which annually spends about $95 million on advertising, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus—is dedicating about 20 percent of its national cable ad budget to the new, female-targeted work, said Haflich. The company spent nearly $20 million on cable ads through July, according to Nielsen.

According to Technomic, same-store sales in the fast-food industry have increased nearly 6 percent for the second quarter, compared with the same period in 2003. Sonic Corp. garnered $2.4 billion in sales last year, according to Technomic—up about 8 percent from ’02; by comparison, U.S. sales for No. 1 McD’s rose nearly 9 percent to $22.1 billion in ’03.

Fast-food chains have increased their advertising efforts targeting women in the past two years with the introduction of healthier fare such as salads. In developing its “I’m lovin’ it” campaign, McDonald’s listed women—particularly those with young children—as a key demographic. For the launch of its premium salads line, the Oak Brook, Ill., company also targeted women with creative that includes lines such as, “What’s next, wine tastings?” and “What’s next, valet parking?”

“Women are a large influencer of how we eat in this country,” said Harry Balzer, vp of consumer market-research firm NPD Group in Chicago. “It has occurred to restaurant chains … that you can build a business by targeting women.”