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Culver Boosts Spending, Puts Founder in TV Spots

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One and All campaign tries to humanize chain

Fast-growing Culver Franchise System has increased its marketing budget and put its owner in TV commercials from Minneapolis' One and All.

The Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based chain, known for its "Butter Burgers" and frozen-custard treats, will put $10 million behind marketing this year, up from about $4 million last year, according to sources.

One and All, which won the account in November, has created five 30-second TV spots that feature company co-founder and president Craig Culver. The new work is an effort to put a face on the company and show that the owners are involved, said Mike Lescarbeau, agency creative director.

At focus groups, "we were hearing people say [Culver's was] owned by a General Mills or Pillsbury or some holding company," Lescarbeau said. "The idea that there was a Mr. Culver who comes in every day was a surprising thing."

One spot opens with Culver coaching a young employee named Kevin to say, "A better brand of beef makes a Butter Burger better."

Culver says, "Keep trying to concentrate," but Kevin goes into a daydream. He thinks he's getting help from a comely woman and winks at her—only to return to reality and realize he has just winked at his boss. The ads end with the long-running tagline, "America's favorites made fresh."

In another execution, Kevin wonders how Culver comes up with a custard "flavor of the day." In an ensuing reverie, he pictures a turtle (the special that day is turtle custard) typing a list of flavors. He snaps out of it as Culver says, "Kevin? Kevin?"

A spot that breaks today promotes Culver's new made-to-order salad. A commercial slated to debut in late June focuses on frozen custard. In that spot, Kevin realizes the custard's popularity when an ice cream truck driver pulls up to the drive-through to order a cone.

The agency thought the use of Culver in ads might appear "opportunistic" in the wake of the January 2002 death of Wendy's Dave Thomas. But "we talked to a lot of people about it, including Mr. and Mrs. Culver, and got the idea that it would be OK," Lescarbeau said.

Previous ads from Zillman Advertising in Madison, Wis., focused on the quality of the food, using shots of Culver's menu items set to jingles. "We needed to speak to the essence of the Culver brand," said Barbara Behling, Culver's marketing director, of the strategy shift.

Culver's sales grew 30 percent in 2002 to $280 million, and the number of stores was up 26 percent to 197, according to Bob Goldin of Chicago-based restaurant consultancy Technomic. Sales the previous year grew 38 percent.

Culver's chief competitors are regional chains, such as Steak 'n Shake, whose sales grew 2.5 percent last year, and Sonic, which was up 11 percent.

Since it launched in 1984, Culver's has expanded into 12 states in the central U.S. and this year plans to open restaurants in Colorado, Kentucky and Ohio, said Behling.

"Culver is a great success story, and they continue to excite their customers," Goldin said.