Fast Chat: Wendy’s CMO Discusses Campaign

Ad awareness, same-store sales climb since April launch

Six months into a new ad campaign featuring the namesake daughter of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, the brand’s chief marketing officer, Craig Bahner, likes what he sees. Ad awareness and sales have grown and, through Wendy Thomas, the brand has reconnected with its core values. Just this week, the chain refreshed its logo for the first time in 29 years. Bahner, who joined Wendy’s in April after 20 years at Procter & Gamble, explains what Wendy has done for the brand and why he’s satisfied with Publicis Kaplan Thaler, the chain’s lead creative agency since 2009.

AdweekAwareness of Wendy’s advertising has risen since the launch of the Wendy Thomas campaign in April.

Craig Bahner: We feel really good about that. And if you look at the competitive context, we’re in the ballpark of brands that spend a heckuva lot more than we do on media. So, we feel like consumers are noticing this. They’re engaging in it. They’re getting the message. We’re seeing our brand consideration numbers go up. We’re seeing our equity attributes go up, our attribute ratings on the advertising scores go up. So, we feel like we’re getting our message across. And, you know, it’s not just TV advertising anymore. We invest a lot in digital, events and things like that to get our message across. Certainly we’re happy with the progress that we’re seeing. 

By what other criteria are you judging the ads?

Ultimately the success of any campaign is going to be the sales performance. But, I would say, we don’t hang that completely on the advertising. It takes a mix of the product story being relevant and salient to consumers. It takes the messaging, the creative and the media placement to work. It takes the consumers coming to our restaurants having a reliable and predictable experience so they’ll come back. It takes the right value equation. … Behind this brand transformation program that we’re undertaking, we feel like we’re moving the brand in the right direction in a number of vectors that are going to accelerate our performance as we move forward.

What has using Wendy Thomas done for your brand?

It has helped us reconnect consumers to our values. This brand was formed on the basis of some pretty fundamental values around quality: not cutting corners, doing things the right way, giving people a fair value for their money, giving them choices that are healthy and support a healthy, balanced lifestyle. And those values are alive and well at Wendy’s today. Obviously, we’re executing against them in a 2012 way not in a 1969 way. But the point of that advertising is to say, “Hey, these values and the values that this brand was founded on and that a lot of you know and grew up on—they’re still there.” 

How do you feel about your lead creative agency, The Kaplan Thaler Group, merging with Publicis?

Well, we think that’s good news. We think that brings a lot of capability and breadth and depth to the table. Having been at Procter, I’m familiar with Kaplan Thaler as well as Publicis and we’re happy with the performance of Publicis Kaplan Thaler at this point and time.

Have the account or creative leaders on your business changed as a result of the merger?

They have not.

Kaplan Thaler has been your lead creative agency for three years. Given the changes in the marketplace since then, would it be good business practice to review the business again now?

You know, if you look at the history of the past 10 years of this brand, the consumer has seen nothing but inconsistent messages and change. If we feel that we’ve got a message that’s resonating with consumers—and we do—in my opinion we’re going to stick with that because it’s going to build the type of consistency, recognition and familiarity that is going to be good for our brand. … We’re very comfortable with where we are right now.

In terms of media planning, does Wendy’s have any intention of being on any high-profile events toward the end of this year or beginning of next year, be it the NFL or Super Bowl kind of event television?

We just came through the upfront over the past couple of months and we’re very happy with the output of that. We reviewed it with our key franchisee groups in August. We have a number of exciting properties, [such as] Sunday Night Football. Sports are a key area for us to focus on—NFL, NCAA, Major League Baseball. We’ve got some pretty significant presence in all of those areas and also in the Mexican Soccer League, which relates to the Hispanic consumer in a big way. And we’ve got some good partnerships that we’re developing behind some of those properties that you’ll be hearing more about in the coming months.

What is your take on the Super Bowl? Some people think it’s a lot to spend and a waste of money and other people say, “Hey, it’s the biggest event on television.”

Well, I’ve been in the Super Bowl with my brands before.

Which ones?

Tide. This was back in the day. … That must have been in ’96 or ’97. It was WAY back when, okay? And I’ve been in a lot of years where I haven’t had anything on the Super Bowl. I’ve had good years when I haven’t been on the Super Bowl. So, we’ll evaluate that. If I we felt like we had something that was appropriate, we could look at it. But I’m not announcing any plans at this particular point and time.

Beyond Wendy, you’ve got the “Red” character, who introduces new menu items. Do you feel that they play off each other well and do you see that as a long-range template?

Well, you know, it’s working. Consumers are telling us it’s working. They tell us that it’s complementary and they see that Wendy’s talks about its brand values. They say, “Hey, we got the Red as bringing these products.” She’s pointing out points of difference and why our star choices and selections are better than our competitors.’ So, we’re pretty happy with that. Obviously, we’re going to continue to learn and evolve. But in the immediate near future, this is the horse we’re riding.