Brand of the Day: Why Olive Garden Gets Unlimited Love, and Scorn, From Consumers

No middle ground for this casual dining chain

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Last week, Olive Garden proved just how far people are willing to eat an enormous amount of food for a very small amount of money.

The Italian eatery, known for its unlimited salad and breadsticks, announced a crazy new deal: seven full weeks of unlimited pasta for just $100—avaliable to 1,000 lucky patrons who were able to score the $100 Never Ending Pasta Pass in an online sale.

Perhaps predictably, the website crashed. But no matter. There's a thriving black market for the passes, with dozens of them listed on eBay and Craigslist at significantly markups. (The company, though, said the passes are personalized and not transferable.)

Founded in Orlando, Fla., in 1982, Olive Garden grew quickly to 145 locations by 1989. Originally part of the General Mills family of brands (subsidiary Darden was spun out as a separate company in 1995), things aren't too sunny these days for the casual dining chain.

It's has been object of ridicule for years among many consumers (and even the media), who see it as supremely unauthentic, a haven for gluttony, a place to get terrible food, or all of the above. And now, one of the brand's largest shareholders, Starboard Value, has piled on. Starboard crafted a 294-page proposal on how to fix the flagging brand; the hedge fund believes the chain should slow its roll (sorry) with the breadsticks and push more alcohol.

The company has pushed back, though, saying its unlimited breadsticks are a sign of Italian generosity. And clearly it has legions of dedicated fans who agree.

Social Media Profile (as of 9/17/14)

Facebook Likes: 6.3 million

Twitter Followers: 178,745

Instagram Followers: 11,023

The brand is quite active on social media, especially with its Pasta Pass contest running until Sept. 22. Most of the time, the brand leans into its family-friendly image.  

Though this week it's also being quite feisty about its breadsticks battle.

Recent Advertising

Almost every spot from the eatery highlights a deal or a promotion, though the brand did recently venture into the world of foodies.

The CMO's Philosophy

"The only risk in marketing is not taking one," says Jay Spenchian, Olive Garden's evp of marketing.

Fast Facts

• Perhaps the best press the chain received in recent years was this earnestly glowing 2012 review from an elderly restaurant critic in North Dakota, which quickly went viral. Yes, the review was also ridiculed, but it captured just what many Americans love about the place.

• With more than 800 locations in the U.S. and Canada, Olive Garden ranks as the largest Italian chain in North America.

• Owner Darden Restaurants also runs Long Horn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille and Bahama Breeze, among others.

• The brand introduced a new logo in July.

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@KristinaMonllos Kristina Monllos is a senior editor for Adweek.