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IHOP: “We were surprised to see IHOP on the year-end list,” Symonds said, “but we can clearly see that they got there by using customer testimonials [in their commercials].”

He noted that IHOP’s success in Ace Metrix’s study coincided with positive same-store sales, which rose 1.7 percent for the brand through the first nine months of fiscal 2013.

“In a category that has struggled in sales and in its perception in the stock market, IHOP was a bright spot and scored well each time,” Symonds said.

LongHorn Steakhouse: The steakhouse chain, one of three brands on the watch list owned by Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc., “understood that when you’re selling steak, you don’t have to sell ambience or deals,” Symonds said. “They sell steak, steak and more steak.”

LongHorn did mix in some commercials for its lunch daypart, where it often advertised lower prices around $15, but primarily the chain’s strategy was to emphasize food shots of its entrée steaks, Symonds noted. He added that LongHorn led all brands in a separate component measure for “desire,” or the rate at which surveyed consumers indicate that the commercial made them hungry for the product.

“The power of steak is not lost on the consumer,” he said.

Olive Garden: Darden’s flagship Italian dinnerhouse chain stuck with a strategy that was more deal-focused than its commercials had been in previous years, Symonds noted.

“While LongHorn tacks a mention of a deal at the end of its ads, Olive Garden has come deal-first and then tacks on food shots and people,” he said. “They’re stepping a little outside their bounds.”

The ads that performed the best for Olive Garden throughout 2013 dealt with new menu news that broke for the brand’s routine, like spots for its Lighter Fare menu, a standout in the first quarter, and commercials for its new Italiano Burger at lunch. Meanwhile, ads for the Never Ending Pasta Bowl “lost a little of their luster,” Symonds said.

Olive Garden was No. 1 in the component measure for “relevance,” due probably to its system size of more than 830 units and heavy advertising spending, he said.

Red Lobster: Darden’s third large chain, Red Lobster, “showed a little more diversity, from deals like CrabFest and LobsterFest that are promotional in nature, to ads where they speak to the supply chain,” Symonds said. “Those ads do well.”

Red Lobster’s sales and traffic have struggled for much of the year, and Darden said Dec. 19 that it would seek a spinoff or sale of the seafood brand.

Advertising effectiveness and sales performance do not always correlate, Symonds conceded, complimenting Red Lobster’s ability to perform well in Ace Metrix’s studies all year with several creative strategies.

“It’s hard to characterize their advertising as one thing over the other,” he said. “But when they’ve gone to the testimonial approach with their line cooks or suppliers, those ads have worked very well.”

TGI Fridays: Fridays, another brand potentially on the sale block, was a new entrant to the brand of the year watch list in 2013, Symonds noted.

“That’s been driven by one thing alone: Jack Daniel’s,” he said. “All the ads called out the Jack Daniel’s menu and mentioned Fridays’ $10 deal. It was a very consistent, good message.”

Fridays finished right behind LongHorn in the component measure for “attention,” which tracked the extent to which ads grabbed consumers’ attention and broke through the clutter.