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How Arby's Broke Its Marketing Slump and Became One of Today's Beefiest Brands

Brand president says it all began with meat

Arby's 'We Have the Meats' campaign from agency Fallon marked a new era of growth and experimentation.

A few year's back, Arby's had a big problem with its advertising: it wasn't working. The brand had been through a host of different taglines, ad agencies and logos, none of which differentiated the brand from competitors or captured what Arby's stood for.

But operating under the belief that advertising isn't dead and instead is merely "craving some courage," Arby's Restaurant Group brand president and CMO Robert Lynch set out to reinvent quick service restaurant advertising.  

"Our customers were not loving Arby's for a very long time," Lynch said at the ANA Masters of Marketing Annual Conference in Orlando. "We had lost about $150,000 per restaurant in sales over a four year period, which for a brand of our size is essentially catastrophic

The brand's turning point arrived about two years ago. It was either going to crash and burn or rise to the challenge of its teetering brand. The difficulty was figuring out what made the brand special and what it stood for.

The team came to a consensus on what was at the core of the Arby's brand: meat.

From there, Lynch helped carve out a new industry category specific to Arby's, which he calls Fast Crafted.

Working with new agency partner Fallon, which replaced Crispin Porter + Bogusky after just two years on the account, they also created a new kind of ad campaign, one focusing not just on the sandwiches, but also the meat that goes into them. 

"I had to take a stark stance and really sell what I sell and say what I want to say and break away from a lot of the happy-people-running-along-with-sandwiches-in-their-hands kind of advertising," Lynch said.

Once the first "We Have The Meats" spots debuted roughly 14 months ago (voiced perfectly by actor Ving Rhames of Pulp Fiction fame), the brand kept that momentum going and continued to take a fun, fearless approach to its work. That attitude led Arby's to a host of other successful marketing efforts that made strong use of the brand's relatively limited media budget.

"We've done that through creating engagement with our customers where the brand can fit into cultural events. We jump in where we think we have a right to jump in. We don't push content and ads through our social media channels. We listen," Lynch said. 

At the 2014 Grammy's, the brand sent the Tweet seen around the Web when rapper and producer Pharrell Williams wore a hat that looked remarkably similar to the Arby's logo. That one tweet racked up 78,000-plus retweets and generated an additional 6,000 followers for the brand.

Not taking itself too seriously became an essential part of the Arby's marketing strategy. It paid off once again when Arby's took on Daily Show host Jon Stewart. While Stewart made the chain the butt of many jokes over the years, Arby's didn't take it to heart. 

"We had a decision to make. We were either going to call Mr. Stewart and say 'Please refrain from using our brand that way,' or something else. We decided to send his whole crew lunch," Lynch said.

That didn't stop Stewart from completely ripping the brand apart again and again.

Still, Arby's held its head high and when Stewart announced his retirement the brand once again decided to take control of the conversation.

Another unexpected marketing highlight was when Arby's realized it had fallen short in its contractual obligation to mention Pepsi in two ads a year. Normally such an oversight would go unnoticed by the public (and probably even by the brands), but Arby's and Fallon decided to turn it into a meta moment of applause-worthy bluntness.

The result? More than 2 million views on an ad about an ad Arby's forgot to make:

Taking risks and having fun with its marketing has paid of tremendously for Arby's in the last two years. Lynch noted that two years ago only 35 percent of its customers were under the age of 35. Today, 50 percent of its customers are under the age of 35. It's also paid off in boosted sales, though Lynch says he's more excited about getting more feet through the doors and more conversations started online.

"It's not just about sales," Lynch said. "We're driving transactions, which in our industry is hard to come by, and I think we're just getting started."

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