Casual-Dining Accounts in Play

Midrange restaurants are looking to rebrand as economy wanes

Could a rotten economy actually be good for casual-dining restaurants?

Ten chains—which collectively spend about $160 million a year in media—have reviewed their creative accounts this year, and most are still in play. The bigger spenders include TGI Friday’s, CiCi’s Pizza, Cracker Barrel, and Dave & Buster’s. The others—Ruby Tuesday, Captain D’s, Friendly’s, Perkins, Old Chicago, and Ninety Nine—have invested less but are addressing the same core challenge: Is it possible not only to entice people to eat out in bad financial times, but to attract new customers as well?

“The lines of class have been blurred,” said Hasan Ramusevic of the Hasan + Co. consultancy in Raleigh, N.C., noting that the right deal can bring in regular diners as well as those with typically more discerning tastes. “Fine diners are now all over the board, and there’s a little bit of a race to the middle to get new customers without alienating their core base.”

But it’s not just about naming the right price. If ads for these chains focus solely on the bottom line, none will stand out. So, in addition to trying to capitalize on the downturn, some are getting serious about distinguishing their brands—even as they continue to promote special offers.

“The day-to-day [sales volume] is never much out of focus,” said Trey Hall, chief marketing officer at TGI Friday’s, which last month shifted its creative and media business to The Richards Group. At the same time, added Hall, “we must pursue stronger branding.”

Easier said than done. Red Lobster shifted its business to Grey last year, but its ads still contain clichés like steaming trays of shrimp and bottom-rung entrée prices. (This despite the chain’s attempt to humanize itself with its “Sea Food Differently” campaign, which focuses on the people who catch, prepare, and serve the food.)

“It’s actually tough to build brands because a lot of people resort to ‘wet meat’ advertising,” explained Avi Dan of Avidan Strategies in New York.

Indeed, pressure from franchisees, Wall Street, and investors often leads to the “food porn” approach. It’s the most obvious route and the path of least resistance for an agency struggling to balance the pressures of building a brand and maintaining a business relationship.

Yet, if a shop reaches higher, it could turn one of these chains into the next Olive Garden—an old, struggling brand that Grey helped turn around with its “When you’re here, you’re family” campaign. Besides, real ad guys relish a big challenge.

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