Two decades ago, as Wendy’s was mired in a sales slump, the burger chain turned to its founder, Dave Thomas, to serve as its advertising voice.
The move proved fortuitous. After a shaky start, Thomas evolved into the folksy, self-effacing face of the company—and a beloved American character. He remained the heart of Wendy’s advertising until his death in 2002.
Now the chain is trying another member of the Thomas family in commercials. This time, it’s Thomas’ daughter, Wendy, who was the source of the chain’s name and was the model for its logo.
Wendy Thomas, now a 49-year-old mom, is featured in TV spots to promote a burger line named after her dad. The ads air in the Las Vegas; Mobile, Alabama; and Virginia Beach, Virginia, markets, where Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy Cheeseburger is being tested.
The commercials aren’t a gimmick. “They were done with a lot of thought,” says chief marketing officer Ken Caldwell.
Wendy’s, part of the Wendy’s/Arby’s Group, is riding a wave of new product introductions and its first successful national advertising campaign since Dave Thomas died. After all, the chain is still remembered for spots like “Where’s the beef?”
The latest branding uses the tagline “You know when it’s real,” and hones in on the high-quality food and value that consumers identify with the Wendy’s brand.
“The ‘Real’ campaign has been spot on,” says Chris O’Cull, a Nashville, Tennessee–based restaurant industry analyst with investment firm SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Inc. “Clearly, Wendy’s is about real, fresh food, and that’s what the advertising reinforces.”
And what could be more real than the chain’s namesake?
The initial commercial for the new burger line opens with an imagined flashback of Dave Thomas telling a young Wendy about the importance of hot and juicy hamburgers. The scene dissolves to the real, adult Wendy talking about her father and burgers.
The spot is full of images that long-time customers will recognize. The girl in the ad has red hair in pigtails, just as a young Wendy appeared in the company’s cameo logo that has been used since 1969, when the first restaurant opened in Columbus, Ohio.
Even the term “hot ‘n juicy” is a throwback to the chain’s first ad campaign in the 1970s.
The new commercials, created by Wendy’s agency Kaplan Thaler Group, present Wendy Thomas as a regular person, not an actress. In reality, she’s in the family business, owning—with her siblings—nearly three-dozen Wendy’s units around Columbus.
Consumers view her as “genuine, authentic, and real,” Caldwell says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how much people see in Wendy what they saw in Dave.”
The decision to feature Wendy Thomas—she goes by her birth name in the ads—seems inspired, experts say.
“For many consumers, seeing the real Wendy is a great way to show a look behind the curtain,” says Linda Duke, chief executive of Duke Marketing in San Rafael, California. “It is a bit like [having a] celebrity, which is very popular with consumers right now.”
The fact that an actual Wendy exists "fits perfectly with their [‘Real’] tagline.”
Tying that to a hamburger named for Dave Thomas makes sense, O’Cull says.
“People who know about Wendy’s believe that Dave Thomas had a passion for burgers,” he says. “Having a premium burger line goes along with that image.”
The new burger, served in Single, Double, and Triple sizes, is the latest creation to emerge from the company’s revitalized research and development pipeline. In recent months, Wendy’s rolled out updated salads, natural cut fries with sea salt, and other items.
“We worked on every element of the hamburger to make it the best one in the industry,” Caldwell says. “We’re not going to use Dave Thomas’ name lightly.”
The patties still use a quarter pound of fresh, North American beef, but they are shaped looser, and thus thicker, to be juicier and hold more heat.
The sandwiches, which are being tested at various prices, also feature a warm, butter-toasted bun that helps the cheese melt better. Toppings include fresh crinkle-cut pickle slices, red onions, real mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomatoes.
Caldwell didn’t put a timetable on the test.
Separately, Wendy’s is testing another upscale burger in Dave Thomas’ honor. The D.T. Double, available in Providence, Rhode Island, and Austin, Texas, has two patties, two pieces of cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and a “signature sauce.”