What does success for a limited-time offer look like? Starbird Chicken’s marketing manager, Casey Hilder, says it’s “generating brand awareness, stimulating product trial, and developing brand loyalty, which includes gaining new guests and encouraging current guests to explore the menu.” And for Taco Bell’s chief food innovation officer, Liz Matthews, it’s driving “news, excitement, and traffic into restaurants.”
But while operators may agree on the end goal of an LTO, the right path to getting there is less certain. What’s important, they say, is to examine an LTO’s most essential characteristics. For example, Lori Estrada, senior vice president of research and development at Wendy’s, says time—one third of “limited-time offer”—is a critical component to pay attention to. “It is a factor to consider because we have to make sure we’re not jumping on the trend too early,” she says. Or, for that matter, too late.
Time also encapsulates seasons—and seasonal flavors and ingredients are another big focus when developing LTOs. Just look at Starbucks’ success with its Pumpkin Spice Latte, affectionately known as PSL among the hordes that clamor for it in the fall. Chopt Creative Salad Co. has its own menu seasons with its Destination Salads menu, which expands the customer’s palate with tastes from around the world, highlighting a new destination every 60 days. Recent Destination Salads have included the Cape Cod Shrimp Roll Salad and the Key West Jerk Chicken Salad.
LTOs also orbit around buzz-worthy foods that are new and innovative. Jack in the Box uses its LTOs to generate permanent menu additions or dishes that can bring back customers again and again. “Jack in the Box aims to be innovative and exciting when creating LTOs,” says a Jack in the Box spokesperson. “We want our customers to be excited when we come out with a new product, so we go as far out of the box as possible while still staying true to our brand’s voice and personality.”
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Taco Bell sees LTO generation as “rolling out food firsts,” Matthews says. Taco Bell’s last few years’ worth of LTOs—which has included everything from the Naked Chicken Chalupa to the Breakfast Waffle Taco, and from the Nacho Fries to the California Loaded Fries Burrito—offers plenty of examples of a brand thinking outside the box. But while innovation is important, it’s also necessary to rein it in a bit and keep the menu approachable for the guest, says Chopt cofounder Tony Shure. “We create our Destination Salads to push the boundaries of flavor and challenge what a salad can be, while keeping one foot firmly placed in the comfort zone,” he says. The experience of an LTO may be adventurous, he adds, but it also shouldn’t alienate the customer or abandon the core of the restaurant’s signature experience.
On the business end, LTOs need to be affordable for the guest (sometimes even enticingly so), communicated well, made from available ingredients, and leveraged from what the restaurant already offers. And like any business, sometimes a quick serve needs to cut its losses; Wendy’s learned this from its Truffle Bacon Cheeseburger, which failed to connect with its guests because it was communicated poorly, Estrada says.
Jennifer Chasteen, Church’s Chicken vice president of brand strategy and activation, says an LTO must also be realistic for the brand—both in flavor and in sales projections. “When we think about our core product, our signature bone-in chicken, it’s all about exploring interesting configurations that give customers what they want,” she says. When Church’s rolled out its MegaBites, they were wildly successful but sold out more quickly than anticipated. Keeping up with customer demand with sufficient material is necessary for success.
Different brands read their customers in different ways. Every restaurant running an LTO has to know what the customer wants and doesn’t want. Wendy’s learned through experience that its customers want burgers kept in a familiar taste range, while experimentation is safer for them in the chicken and salad categories, Estrada says. This month, Wendy’s is rolling out its Harvest Chicken Salad LTO, which includes apple chunks, brown sugar walnuts, Applewood-smoked bacon, grilled chicken, feta cheese, and an apple cider vinaigrette.
Church’s does a lot of work up front “with the consumer piece, validating the programs as well as the operational and financial feasibility before the LTOs go live,” Chasteen says. That includes metrics like sales, promotional mix, guest satisfaction, and financial feasibility.
Taco Bell uses a steady stream of LTOs—around 15 per year—to find its winners. Chopt is small enough that it can react quickly and has various feedback channels to help it “constantly improve,” Shure says. And Starbird Chicken notes market trends before it develops its LTOs.
At the end of the day, good food nearly always makes an LTO a success. Perhaps a marketing miracle or fluke coincidence in the season drives a product to succeed, but typically, the food just has to taste good. And when it’s good, brands can revel in big wins, like Taco Bell’s Beefy Crunch Burrito, Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger, Church’s Bourbon Black Pepper Smokehouse Half Chicken, Jack in the Box’s Munchie Meals, and Chopt’s Salad Six Pack.