A study of the most effective advertisers in the restaurant industry by Ace Metrix revealed that “America’s love affair with casual dining” continued in 2012, the advertising research firm’s executive vice president of marketing, Jonathan Symonds, said.
After asking thousands of survey respondents to rank brands’ TV commercials based on how persuasive and watchable they were, Ace Metrix calculated its proprietary Ace Score for each restaurant. The Mountain View, Calif.-based firm found that restaurants’ ads performed best when they focused on food, but within the context of affordability and the dining environment.
Casual dining as a segment performed much better than quick service, with its top five brands averaging an Ace Score above 600 out of a possible 950 for the year, which is “significant,” Symonds said. Olive Garden had the highest average score of any brand in any category, with 624, followed by LongHorn Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday, Applebee’s and Outback Steakhouse with averages of 611, 609, 607 and 603, respectively.
The quick-service segment’s most effective advertisers were Pizza Hut, Baskin-Robbins, Dairy Queen, Domino’s Pizza and KFC, with average Ace Scores of 598, 597, 597, 592 and 582, respectively.
“Particularly in casual dining, there is a formula for success, and these are very sophisticated marketers running the brands,” Symonds said. “They know they have good ads out of the gate because of their testing processes, and that’s why they continue to perform well, I think.”
During the past year, he said, dinnerhouse brands created effective ads judged to be persuasive and watchable by emphasizing low price points while showcasing slick food shots and clean, high-end dining rooms. Some of the lowest-scoring commercials from last year were 15-second ads that typically cut shots of ambiance and food and went straight to the value message.
Ace Metrix broke down the keys to marketing success for the following top brands.
Casual-dining No. 1: Olive Garden
Average Ace Score: 624
Darden Restaurants’ Olive Garden brand stuck to an effective formula for its five highest-rated commercials in 2012. All of the 30-second spots showed families and groups of young diners in the restaurants enjoying special promotional menus and featured the price points prominently. The offers included Olive Garden’s 2 for $25 Italian Dinner, the 3-Course Italian Dinner, the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl for $9.95 and the Taste of Tuscany menu, which started at $10.95.
“You have to get people’s mouths watering, get them feeling good about the environment and get the value right,” Symonds said. “Olive Garden is frankly better than everybody else at delivering those three messages.”
Casual-dining No. 2: LongHorn Steakhouse
Average Ace Score: 611
LongHorn, another casual-dining brand in the Darden portfolio, also deployed the food-value-ambiance trifecta in its commercials to advertise structured deals such as the Steakhouse Dinner for Two for $29.99 or individual items like the Outlaw Ribeye. It also added short tags to the end of most commercials to advertise the $7.99 Steakhouse Lunch Combinations.
All the spots capitalized on LongHorn’s advantage with its signature product, Symonds said. “America loves steak,” he said. “All the chains have steak in most of their food shots, and that’s not by accident.”
Casual-dining No. 3: Ruby Tuesday
Average Ace Score: 609
Whether it was promoting new signature dishes or its Fresh Garden Bar, Ruby Tuesday did the most good for its brand in new commercials that played up the chain’s upgraded ambiance and décor, Symonds said. The highest-scoring commercials emphasized the environment “where eating feels more like dining.”
“It’s possible to break into this group, and Ruby Tuesday did this year by introducing themselves as the ‘new Ruby Tuesday,’” Symonds said. “The perceptions of Ruby Tuesday have [gotten better] recently, and the commercials are showing glasses of wine poured at the table and people seated in leather chairs and upscale dining rooms.”
Casual-dining No. 4: Applebee’s
Average Ace Score: 607
Applebee’s consistently scored high with ads typical of casual dining last year, showing people in the restaurant and in the test kitchens enjoying tight shots of food from several promotional menus. Those included the Sizzling Entrees for $9.99, new Southwest flavors on the 2 for $20 menu, and the $9.99 Spirited Cuisine offering.
But Applebee’s highest-scoring single ad from last year was a spot for its “Thank You Movement” to offer military veterans a free meal on Veteran’s Day.
Casual-dining No. 5: Outback Steakhouse
Average Ace Score: 603
Outback also garnered its highest Ace Score of 2012 with a cause-marketing spot for Veteran’s Day, in which the brand’s staff visited troops at overseas bases to feed them and with several offers at each unit back in the United States. Veterans were offered a free Bloomin’ Onion and beverage on Veteran’s Day, as well as a 10-percent discount for the rest of the year.
In other spots for special menus like the Outback 4 combo or signature entrees, Outback supplemented the usual in-restaurant food shots with scenes of people doing adventurous activities associated with vacationing in Australia, like zip-lining, snorkeling, outdoor grilling and beach parties.
Quick-service No. 1: Pizza Hut
Average Ace Score: 598
Quick-service chains succeeded mostly by touting their latest limited-time offerings, and the emphasis tended to be more on the culinary innovation than on the price point, Symonds noted. This was especially true with Pizza Hut, which had the highest average Ace Score outside of casual dining in 2012.
“For Pizza Hut and Domino’s, their success was in their deal diversity and product innovation,” Symonds said.
The chain’s two highest-scoring ads were for the Big Dinner Box, including a 15-second spot and a 30-second commercial that took the brand’s highest Ace Score and starred Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Quick-service No. 2: Baskin-Robbins
Average Ace Score: 597
Baskin-Robbins and Dairy Queen led all treat chains and tied for the second-highest average Ace Score in quick service.
Symonds called Baskin-Robbins the “king of the 15-second commercials,” as all five of its top-scoring ads from the “Flavortising” campaign were half as long as typically commercials. “They’re heavy on the food shots with a clever little quip at the end,” he said. “There’s just a lot to like. A very high number of responses from surveyed consumers had to do with words like ‘yummy,’ ‘delicious’ and ‘want.’”
Baskin-Robbins promoted several products, including Waffle Chip Dippers, mini parfaits, and cakes for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Quick-service No. 3: Dairy Queen
Average Ace Score: 597
Symonds noted that Dairy Queen’s commercials also were “driving the Pavlovian response” for consumers, many of whom associated the spots in surveys with words like “good” and “yum” as well.
The chain’s signature desserts starred in its two highest-scoring ads, including a 30-second spot for a buy-one-get-one Blizzard deal and a 15-second commercial for Blizzard Cakes.
Three humorous spots for Dairy Queen’s “So good it’s Ri-DQ-lous” campaign also performed well in 2012, Ace Metrix found.
Quick-service No. 4: Domino’s Pizza
Average Ace Score: 592
Like Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza built most of its most successful commercials around new product introductions this year. However, its highest-scoring ad of the year went lighter on the food shots and featured the chain’s fastest pizza box folder getting ready for the demand of an aggressive carryout offer.
Symonds noted, however, that Domino’s still got nice traction for new items in commercials that featured chief executive Patrick Doyle, who has starred in commercials for the past few years.
“Their top ad was for the $5.99 carryout deal, but then the new Pan Pizza spot and the commercial for Parmesan Bread Bites bring in new news but with a familiar message,” Symonds said.
Quick-service No. 5: KFC
Average Ace Score: 579
In quick service, few chains were more prolific in their new-product introductions than KFC in 2012, and Ace Metrix found that their commercials broke through nicely with consumers, often with several spots for the same product performing well.
The brand’s two highest-scoring ads, for instance, were a 30-second ad for Original Recipe Bites in which a father tricks his son into leaving the snack item unguarded by sending him away for a fake game of hide and seek, as well as a 15-second version of the same spot. Two separate commercials for the Chunky Pot Pie garnered the No. 3 and No. 4 Ace Scores as well.
“KFC had clever advertising,” Symonds said. “Whether for the new Original Recipe Bites or the seasonal introduction of the pot pie, KFC made this list with a couple of really, really good campaigns.”
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