Consumer Trends | November 2014 | By Nicole Duncan

Not the Same Old Thing

Legacy quick-serve concepts blend the old with the new to revitalize their brand.
Older quick service restaurant
At 95 years old, A&W unveiled a new store prototype that evokes what brand executives call “hip nostalgia.” A&W

When you’re a quick-serve executive for a brand with decades of history, it can be hard to change with the times while retaining a connection with loyal, longtime customers. But, as in all things, evolution is necessary in the restaurant business, and a brand refresh that touches all aspects of a concept can propel growth. The key, the experts say, is striking a balance between old and new, and then tracking the progress.

“Our CEO has said it best at times: There’s always sort of an elephant in the room,” says Chris Brandon, director of external communications for Domino’s. “There’s always something a company knows is its weakness or opportunity to improve, change, or evolve.”

In 2010, its 50th anniversary year, Domino’s began a “from the crust up” campaign to improve the quality of its pizza, Brandon says. The pizza chain coupled menu changes with bold marketing tactics, including ads that compared the old crust to cardboard.

For other operators, a refresh has less to do with overhauling the product and more to do with appealing to younger generations without losing established consumers.

“It was really the initial development of the brand strategy and understanding who we are today from our consumers’ perspective that was the key element,” says Kevin Bazner, chief executive officer of 95-year-old A&W.

Bazner acquired the business in late 2011 and looked to A&W’s storied past for inspiration. One such inspiration was Rooty, the A&W mascot who was defunct under the previous owners, but is now the “spokesbear” for A&W’s Twitter feed and star of his own alphabet-burping app. While the playful nature of A&W’s new social media strategy may have piqued the interest of younger consumers, Bazner says, the brand wants to connect with them beyond the digital landscape.

“Our existing consumer knows us for a quality element, and today’s Millennial is looking for quality,” he says. “The commonalities were really a throwback to our own history.”

A&W is testing a new store prototype at a corporate location in the company’s hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. In addition to having minor menu tweaks, the restaurant evokes what Bazner calls “hip nostalgia” with its drive-in décor and dining-room attendants who bring out food, refill beverages, and clean up after customers.

“The difference compared to others that are serving quality food is the engagement service,” Bazner says.

A&W’s makeover strategy affects several facets of the restaurant: menu, design, marketing, and customer engagement. This type of multipronged approach is often essential in changing a brand’s public perception in a meaningful way.

“You can’t just do one thing and hope that that’s going to be enough,” says Jason Wright, group strategy director at advertising firm The VIA Agency. “People’s expectations really need to be met with a change. It’s not enough just to change the signs or the marketing campaign or the menu.”

A dramatic shift takes time, and Wright advises operators not to mistake short bursts in sales or Web traffic for lasting success. It may be common to see a sales or traffic spike with the debut of a refreshed concept, but the shift for consumers doesn’t happen immediately, he says. Quick serves can ease this transition by highlighting what makes them stand apart from competitors and making those traits a key part of the new brand identity.

In approaching its brand refresh, Cheyenne, Wyoming–based Taco John’s took pride in its original approach to Mexican fare. The 45-year-old chain’s leaders assumed that customers knew about the creativity and quality standards that went into items such as its Potato Olés. But they found out that wasn’t the case.

“We very quickly discovered that our brand needed to be built around the thing that we do and others don’t,” says Billie Jo Waara, chief marketing officer for Taco John’s. “We had always thought everybody knew that about our restaurants, and that’s not true, so we needed to start telling that.”

Taco John’s began its reboot this past summer. In addition to a slew of new tongue-in-cheek ads with the tagline “Unwrap the Original,” the restaurants are undergoing interior refreshes ranging from new signage and fixtures to revamped employee uniforms. To keep the menu fresh, Taco John’s also plans to release two to three new specialty items each year.

Similarly, national chicken chain Popeyes sought a reinvention in late 2008 when brand executives decided the concept had plateaued. One of the first steps in this reboot was to change the name from Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

“The fried chicken segment of [quick service] had gotten pretty commoditized,” says Dick Lynch, chief brand experience officer at Popeyes. “All of the brands were in dire need of differentiation.”

The crux of Popeyes’ reboot can be traced to its Louisiana roots, which had been largely ignored since its inception in New Orleans in 1972. Lynch says spicy fried chicken was essentially the brand’s core product, and though it got its spiciness from Cajun seasoning, the point of differentiation was rarely talked about. However, after the brand refresh, all menu items and interior design embodied and emphasized that heritage. “We took our past to be the inspiration, but it’s an inspiration, not handcuffs,” Lynch adds.

Popeyes made its Zatarain’s-marinated, hand-breaded Bonafide Chicken the star of the menu and also added Big Easy staples like Cajun gravy and cracked pepper shrimp. Interior flourishes such as spice jars and Louisiana artwork reinforced its culinary origins. Although Popeyes has seen momentous sales growth in the past five years, Lynch says, another key metric has been paramount in monitoring its continued prosperity.

“What’s really important to us is the development of our franchisees,” Lynch says. “We want to give them a very economically sound financial model at the restaurant level that they not only want to market, but they want to build more.”

For some operators, qualitative data might be more valuable than numbers in assessing the efficacy of a refresh. Taco John’s solicits feedback through a program called “Tell TJ,” in which customers can call or go online to share their opinions. Domino’s has monitored consumer reactions via social media, and A&W uses a combination of survey data and in-person comments to value-engineer its experimental corporate store.

The VIA Agency’s Wright says older brands should make dramatic changes rather than incremental shifts to successfully retool their image. However, brands with a storied past should also be proud of their heritage. “Brands that have a long history, it doesn’t mean that they’re old and tired,” he says. “In the world we live in today, it means they’re authentic.”

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