Competitive advertising is back, with three major restaurant chains having recently debuted campaigns using direct or thinly veiled comparisons between their own brand offerings and those of rivals.
New commercials from Taco Bell, Arby’s and Domino’s take on competitive brands Chipotle, Subway and Pizza Hut, respectively, during a time when economic trends continue to suppress consumer spending and when customer traffic growth, not necessarily new-unit growth, is the key to success for many restaurants.
“It’s all about sourcing transactions from the category leader,” Arjun Sen, founder of Centennial, Colo.-based marketing consultancy ZenMango said. “In every case, it’s all about trial, and there’s a promise that the advertising chain is better.”
Taco Bell’s new TV spot for its Cantina Bowl offerings, and the promotion of fresh, upscale ingredients prepared by a, makes no specific mention of Chipotle Mexican Grill, yet it was Chipotle that popularized the burrito bowl format and is widely known for its upscale ingredients. Arby’s takes on Subway directly, with a TV spot showcasing a retired New York City detective standing in front of a Subway factory where its meats are allegedly prepared. In comparison, Arby’s claims to make its sandwiches by slicing fresh meat in each location. And Domino’s newest TV commercials feature chief executive Patrick Doyle talking up its new, never frozen pan pizza, which just so happens to be the signature offering of rival Pizza Hut.
The case for competitive advertising depends on what demonstrative difference a restaurant brand can highlight that a competitor can’t, Sen said.
“If Domino’s can claim it always uses fresh dough, and Pizza Hut’s biggest part of its business involves frozen dough, that’s a great place to stand,” he said. “Do [comparative ads] if you have a big enough reason for consumers to try you. But if you don’t, it’s risky.”
Nation’s Restaurant News asked Sen to review the three new campaigns.
Taco Bell: Bowling for dollars
Taco Bell’s newest spot for its Cantina Bowl features consulting chef Lorena Garcia incorporating the item’s ingredients, all of which were scrutinized to be of higher quality, the 6,000-plus-unit chain said during the run-up to the item’s introduction this past summer. Garcia talks only about Taco Bell and does not mention Chipotle, the 1,300-unit fast-casual brand.
The commercial demonstrated this trio of competitive commercials’ strategy of not directly comparing Brand A with Brand B, which would have required “a lot more homework,” Sen said.
“In a typical comparative ad, there needs to be some research finding, and then it goes through the Better Business Bureau or the Ad Council,” he said. “This is a softer way of comparing brands. … The commonality you’ll see is that they’re all implying freshness and trying to ‘out-fresh’ each other.”
“Taco Bell was the most subtle of them all,” Sen said, referring to the three commercials highlighted in this article. “They’re coming to a whole new category with Cantina Bell, and it’s all about the growing up of a brand. A burrito bowl refers to Chipotle, and if the implication is that Chipotle is the best in that product category, then this chef-inspired Cantina Bell menu implies that Taco Bell is getting serious.”
Arby’s: Slicing into Subway
In its most recent commercial, the first with new chief marketing officer Russ Klein and new advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Arby’s was the most aggressive in making a competitive claim against another brand. Speaking for Arby’s, retired New York City detective Bo Dietl stands in front of a semi-hidden Subway restaurant — while the sign has been partially blurred, the white lettering on the green and yellow background can be discerned fairly easily — to disparage Subway’s use of factory pre-sliced meats. The commercial then shifts to Arby’s use of slicers in each restaurant.
The big question for the Arby’s commercial, Sen said, is whether the meat sliced in the store is a big enough differentiator to encourage customers get to the nearest of 3,500 Arby’s restaurants, especially as Subway tallies a more accessible 37,871 units.
“Are they conceding that both brands have the same quality of meat, but Subway just slices it at a factory?” he asked. “They’re not saying they have better meat.”
The fact that Arby’s did not mention Subway by name, except for in very fine print at the bottom of the screen, led Sen to believe the commercial might not start a long campaign, but rather may be for just a short marketing window.
“If you change the logo, have a great new tagline and pick a new agency, I would expect something so big that I’d need to stop everything and run to Arby’s,” he said. “I was expecting something larger than life, not just telling me that slicing meat in store is better.”
Domino’s: Freezing out the competition
Domino’s competitive claim that its pan pizza is made from fresh, never frozen dough is a “no-brainer,” Sen said. The 4,900-unit Domino’s needs only to talk about pan pizza to imply comparisons to the commercial’s unnamed target, Pizza Hut, which boasts 7,600 locations.
“Domino’s is saying, ‘pan pizza,’ which for most of us means Pizza Hut, and without naming names they’re implying that the other guys are using frozen dough,” he said. “Domino’s is more like the born-again brand in the category, and for the past several years it has shown a consistent effort to get better.”
However, Sen cautioned Domino’s, as well as the other brands, that rival brands targeted by competitive ads also can benefit from the TV ads because they receive free exposure.
“In the short term, they make take a little beating, but the brands that really get hurt are the No. 3 and 4 brands,” he said. “They vanish from a lack of unaided awareness. I would worry if I were Papa John’s, for instance, because it looks like No. 1 and No. 2 are squaring off and they didn’t get a bowl bid to the championship game.”