Q&A: Wendy’s CMO Ken Calwell

Wendy’s next week will debut a TV ad campaign from The Kaplan Thaler Group that promotes a new lineup of salads. The launch is part of a larger effort to reposition Wendy’s as a restaurant that serves fresh — and never frozen — food, said CMO Ken Calwell, the former head of marketing at Domino’s, who returned to Wendy’s in 2008 to spearhead its brand overhaul.
Here, Calwell explains why the chain is upping the ante on salads and how it fits in with the brand’s ongoing “You know when it’s real” campaign.

Brandweek: What prompted the new salad launches and why do you think it’s relevant now?
Ken Calwell:
We see a real movement towards that and I think what consumers are having a hard time doing is finding a place where they can get those kinds of quality ingredients — the real quality ingredients — prepared in a fresh way and that taste good. Those are things they are looking for, but what they like about Wendy’s is we are able to provide those things at a good price point and convenience [via] a pick-up window. It’s hard to do all those things well, but that’s what Wendy’s is focused on and what our “real” brand strategy is all about.
Can Wendy’s really replicate the quality and experience of higher-end cafes? What are some of the steps you’ve taken to deliver on that promise?
We changed our labor procedure in stores so that every one of those salads gets prepared hand fresh…We bought salad spinners and put them in our 5,600 restaurants in the country. They are expensive and an extra effort for our team. But what’s great salad? It’s fresh, chopped, clean and spun dry. I hate salads that are wet. When they’re too wet, they get limp. It’s what I call “salad soup.” It’s horrible.
Who’s your target consumer?
A fairly large portion of the buyers will be women, as this is the primary meal of the day for them, but what I found from the last time I worked on salads is if you make it a good size and value, men will buy it as well. So, [we’re estimating it’ll be] 40 percent men and 60 percent women consumers. We want to make it something that appeals to both genders.
The new spots play up the freshness, transparency and source of the salad ingredients. What insights went into the making of this campaign?
In our research, we found that consumers made it very clear that they cared about their food more so than they did before. They see the world as mass produced, overly processed, multitasking, crazy, a little bit out of control and what they are really looking for are things that are real and genuine, things that they trust and the things that they purchase for themselves and their families is a big part of that. One of the things that gives them confidence is food that is real and they can trust.
How do the new ads communicate that?
The campaign you’ve seen from us so far is not real fast paced and it doesn’t contain really high [pitched] music and such. We tried to make it a little bit lower key, just in the same way you’d talk to your friends — very conversational, not formal and not too many adjectives. “It’s the best salad you ever tasted with really awesome ingredients.” I try not to say that. Instead, I’ll say: “Hey, it’s made of 11 kinds of greens and let me tell you what those greens are, how they were grown and how fast they got here.” We’re trying to be real with people and let the story tell itself.

Wendy’s pioneered the quick-service salad bar entry in the late 1970s, and you also helped launch the Garden Sensations salad line. So how is this salad launch different and where did you turn to for inspiration?
In launching both the Garden Sensations line and Wendy’s new salads, I looked at the other hamburger competitors for inspiration. But I [also] looked to the higher-end cafes, the higher-end casual-dining restaurants and even grocery stores — the high-end ones where you can make your own salad — and went to those places. I always ask people, “Where is the best salad place you go to now?” and then I’ll go and have a look at it. To me those salads really set a new, higher bar for the way salads should be made and I want to be the first national competitor to provide that kind of quality in salads.