Restaurant marketers reported a number of exceptional TV campaigns in the second quarter, with many brands breaking through the clutter by accentuating strengths they have cultivated for years in their advertising, according to a new study from Ace Metrix.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based advertising research firm found that Baskin-Robbins and Olive Garden led their respective categories of quick-service and casual-dining marketers with multiple commercials earning top “Ace Scores.” The proprietary Ace Score is Ace Metrix’s measure of how persuasive and watchable an advertisement is, based on daily surveys with thousands of consumers.

Casual-dining restaurants fared particularly well in the second quarter, achieving an Ace Score norm of 631 out of a possible 950, compared with the norm of 566 for all advertisers across all industries. Quick-service restaurants had a second-quarter norm of 594, also beating the nationwide mark for all marketers.

Casual dining: Darden finds winning formula

Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc. took the top three Ace Scores in the casual-dining category during the second quarter, including the No. 1 and No. 3 result, with 30-second ads for Olive Garden and the second-highest Ace Score for a LongHorn Steakhouse 30-second commercial.

Olive Garden’s spot for the “2 for $25 Guest Favorites” promotion garnered a 734 Ace Score, followed by LongHorn’s ad for its “Grilled Tastes of Summer” menu, which earned a 714 score. Olive Garden’s other commercial, for its “Buy One Take One” deal that starts at $12.99, received an Ace Score of 700.

All three commercials stuck to the “25-5” format Darden had executed for the past year or longer at Olive Garden, LongHorn and its former chain Red Lobster, noted Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president for Ace Metrix. In the last five seconds of each 30-second spot, Olive Garden and LongHorn promoted their lunch combos at value-driven price points.

The hybrid approach might be the way Darden has determined it can promote lunch while still devoting the majority of its marketing muscle to dinner, “but you can weave in lunch advertising in a number of ways,” Symonds said.

“Honestly, they should think about what they can do with a 15-second spot for lunch and try to drive some frequency around that,” he said. “I think that there probably are opportunities to build on that, but it’s up to Darden how it wants to allocate its media dollars. If lunch were a sales anchor for them, these ads probably wouldn’t be in the top five scores for the quarter.”

Ruby Tuesday, IHOP air successful ads

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Ruby Tuesday, which had the fourth-highest Ace Score of the quarter, with 691, “over time has become a much better 15-second advertiser,” Symonds said, noting that its top ad was a 15-second spot that advertised three concepts very quickly. The spot conveyed new sliders call Mini Masterpieces, with attractive price points of $5.99 or $9.99 as part of a combo, and the availability of the unlimited salad bar, all without time for much ad copy or a tagline.

“Ruby Tuesday over-indexes on [attribute scores of] relevance and desire, meaning you can have more success at a 15-second spot in casual dining than you could elsewhere,” he said. “It establishes itself quickly with food shots, gets your mouth watering, and then gets more instances of the ad for the same media budget.”

Ace Metrix recently amended its survey process to ask viewers what the best of each ad they evaluated was, lending insight into what drove high Ace Scores for certain restaurant brands, Symonds added. In Ruby Tuesday’s ad, the reasons were fairly balanced, with 18 percent of viewers saying the visuals were the best part, 18 percent saying the product itself, 16 percent saying the deal or price point, and 14 percent saying the brand itself was the best part.

“I would expect the visuals to play well, since that’s what Ruby Tuesday does consistently in their ads,” he said. “With a 15-second ad, the food and visual scenes have to come through.”

Viewers identified different reasons for liking Darden’s top three ads. For instance, 30 percent labeled the deal the best thing about Olive Garden’s aggressive “Buy One Take One” commercial, while in the Italian brand’s commercial for “2 for $25 Guest Favorites” only 19 percent cited the deal and 21 percent cited the product itself.

In the segment’s fifth-place ad, an IHOP commercial with a 689 Ace Score, 30 percent of viewers said the product was the best part of the commercial, followed by 17 percent who said the visuals were the best part.

“It’s pancakes, pancakes and more pancakes,” Symonds said. “Whenever IHOP is in the winner’s circle, it’s a pancake-driven ad.”

Quick service: Baskin-Robbins dominates

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The quick-service segment was nearly a clean sweep in the second quarter, as Baskin-Robbins nabbed the top four Ace Scores of 699, 693, 672 and 668 with four 15-second commercials released between mid-April and early May. They centered on the “endless variety” of Baskin-Robbins’ customized beverages, “endless possibilities” for ice cream cake, or “endless spoonfuls of fun” with the chain’s different toppings.

A fourth ad for online cake ordering was Baskin-Robbins’ No. 2-scoring commercial.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen that kind of dominance from a single brand, ever,” Symonds said.

He noted that through the four commercials, there were “towering scores” for product as the best attribute cited by survey respondents, all between 34 percent and 38 percent per ad. Between 19 percent and 20 percent of viewers cited visuals and food photography in Baskin-Robbins’ ads, while the brand itself received double-digit percentages of survey responses as well.

“People love this ice cream, love the way it’s presented and think it’s completely authentic with the Baskin-Robbins brand,” Symonds said.

The fifth-place Ace Score in the quick-service category was a 665 score for Dairy Queen, which ran a commercial for its Orange Julius smoothies built around a hidden-camera trope popular in advertising. An actor tried to serve unsuspecting guests plastic or artificial fruit before serving them Dairy Queen’s real-fruit smoothies to make the point that the Minneapolis-based chain used only real fruit in its drinks.

Twenty-five percent of the viewers identified the product as the best part of the ad, while 19 percent said the message of the ad was the best part, which was the best performance on that metric of any commercial in Ace Metrix’s top list. The remaining responses were more evenly distributed among visuals, brand and deal, Symonds said.

“People attached themselves to the message of wanting to eat or drink artificial foods, and you see it pretty clearly in the data,” he said.

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