First Mover: Russ Klein | Adweek
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First Mover: Russ Klein

Arby's CMO has to figure out fast food's future when consumers are hungry for freshness

Photo: Raymond McCrea Jones

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Talk about the brand relaunch Arby’s is getting ready to start.
I characterize it as a “rolling thunder” of activity since we’re setting a lot of things into motion while working on longer-term things. Beginning in August, we’ll have a major consumer promotion followed by series of new products and promotional initiatives. In September, we expect the first piece of new Crispin Porter + Bogusky work to break. Longer term, we’re looking at our store design of the future, which we’ll probably have in a couple of restaurants in the beginning of 2013.

The relaunch will focus on your loyal “heavy users,” the 15 percent of customers who account for close to 54 percent of Arby’s business. What’s their favorite time of day to stop into an Arby’s, and what’s your fastest-growing food offering?
Our busiest daypart is lunch and our fastest-growing product is our new Angus platform. It’s been a key driver in the five consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth.

Arby’s agency BBDO worked for the brand during five consecutive quarters of growth. Why the change to CP+B, which you worked with for several years while at Burger King?
BBDO did very good work for the brand that was associated with solid business performance. But this change is more about where we’re going than where we’ve been. CP+B is the most decorated agency of the last 10 years. They’ve also done transformational, game-changing work. If you look at their reel, there are a number of brands that are trying to pivot off an old position and get into a new market space. We have this modern sandwich shop QSR (quick-service restaurant) opportunity that has not been fully capitalized upon. We knew CB+B has the horsepower to do that.

When you were brought in at Burger King, the chain was struggling. How is the turnaround challenge at Arby’s different?
We’re not in quite the same triage mode. But we are still in very formative stages of determining plans for growth. The challenges are industrywide; everybody’s facing commodity cost pressure against the backdrop of a sluggish economy. Then you have the out-of-home food dollar moving toward more fresh ingredients and customization, provenance, and products that are prepared with transparency so consumers can be part of the theater. All of those themes continue to become more important for restaurant concepts.

While at Burger King, you were credited with helping create its famous “Subservient Chicken” campaign, which has been cited as a huge viral success story. What’s your thinking about how to use digital at Arby’s?
A brand has to be very careful how it contributes to the economy of social currency. There are a lot of people who jump into that space because everybody else has, but it’s all about the idea, the idea at that point in time on the calendar with the product or promotional platform you are going to market with. If that isn’t the case, then you do either less or nothing there. Not everything that comes out of a company has to have a digital or social media application to it.

What’s your favorite Arby’s meal?
I stop by an Arby’s every night on the way home. I get the classic roast beef and a large Jamocha shake. Those are the most crave-able things we make and two of the most defining products we offer. Plus, they’re just really, really good.