Shortly after Rob Lynch took over as chief marketing officer of Arby’s Restaurant Group Inc. last September, he called for an agency review to replace Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the firm that won the chain’s account with no review under former CMO Russ Klein, who resigned last June.

Despite all that transition, Arby’s built considerable sales and traffic momentum with Crispin Porter’s last campaign for the brand in the fall of 2013, centered on the Smokehouse Brisket limited-time offer. Atlanta-based Arby’s, a subsidiary of private-equity firm Roark Capital Group, operates or franchises more than 3,400 restaurants worldwide.

Lynch, who came to Arby’s after a stint as vice president of marketing for Taco Bell, is optimistic for more success with even more product innovation after naming last week Minneapolis-based Fallon as Arby’s agency of record. He envisions a new branding strategy that celebrates Arby’s decades of leadership in roast beef and that establishes Arby’s as a destination for menu innovation beyond its signature offering in the future.

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“That future looks like a commitment to product innovation to help our brand move in a direction where we still offer great roast beef but also a lot more to appeal to today’s QSR customers,” Lynch said. “Innovation is a big focus for me and the organization.”

Lynch spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about how Arby’s aligned its new agency and franchisees with the menu innovation strategy and why “the best days are yet to come for Arby’s.”

What did it say to you about Arby’s when its most successful product in years, the Smokehouse Brisket sandwich, ran while the brand was searching for a new agency?

Well, the first day of our Smokehouse Brisket launch was my first day on the job. What a month to come into a new business. That product has set the gold standard and the target for all of us to aspire to in developing products that resonate with current customers and that could bring in new customers.

What that says about the brand is that we have an unbelievable amount of latent opportunity. We can be successful when we deliver products that inspire our customers. Customers that didn’t come into Arby’s regularly started coming in, and we saw a younger, more diverse group because they were intrigued and engaged by the story of Smokehouse Brisket. It was a story grounded in a great product and the fact that we smoke the brisket for 13 hours. People don’t expect that from a QSR.

Working with a new agency

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Are you concerned about using new creative to bring that product back this year?

Not if it’s better creative, and if I have anything to say about it, it will be. Fallon is going to bring some fresh thinking and new ideas, but the product is going to be just as good as before.

The product was still consistent with what Arby’s does best: great sandwiches based in great proteins. It’s like at Taco Bell, when we made a Doritos taco shell. It’s one of those no-brainer ideas and you ask why we didn’t do that sooner. We’re trying to find those stories here grounded in our history of high-quality meat, but creating a new story to inspire new customers.

Why did Arby’s choose Fallon to create that story as the new agency of record?

I’m a big believer in consistency of a brand. We have had some great campaigns over the last 10 years that have helped our business continue to be successful, but we’ve lacked a brand voice and positioning that establish Arby’s as a destination in the hearts and minds of today’s heavy-QSR customers. The partnership with Fallon allows us to do that. They presented a brand vision that’s not only creative but also aspirational for our entire organization, and it’ll challenge us from operations through finance and menu to be better.

Quick-service menu development seems split among simplification efforts at Burger King and McDonald’s or a strategy driven by limited-time offerings, like at Wendy’s and presumably at Arby’s. How do you see that landscape?

In the end, your brand has to stand for something. At Taco Bell, their whole campaign around “Live Más” stands for products you wouldn’t have thought up yourself, and Wendy’s is moving toward a premium-burger positioning. McDonald’s challenge, I think, is people don’t know what they stand for because they’re so big with so much breadth and reach but can’t find things to grow with.

Arby’s stands for roast-beef sandwiches, but frankly that’s not enough. Our brand has so much more to offer. We can stand for the best sandwiches in QSR and the best meat in those sandwiches. We can stand for quality in everything we do, in our products and our communications, and we haven’t delivered that as strongly as we’d like over the last couple years. With the Fallon partnership, our service model and restaurant design, we’ll stand for something.

You can bring a lot of innovation and products, but if there isn’t something building a consistent story for your target audience, then consumers don’t know why to come to your restaurant. The brands doing that are the ones that are winning, and that’s what Arby’s is going to do.

How did you get the input and the buy-in of Arby’s franchisee base, which was vocally displeased with your predecessor before he resigned?

I can’t speak to what happened in the past, but what I can say about the present and future is that I came into this relationship with the Arby’s Franchise Association with the intent of building this business together. It’s all grounded in respect. A lot of these franchisees have been in the system for a long time, they’re independent and entrepreneurial, and I respect that. When they have a point of view, the first thing to do is to listen.

This entire review process has been a completely collaborative partnership. The franchisees were not just invited and didn’t just attend all our meetings with agencies; they contributed and added value because they could speak to things I couldn’t, namely the heritage of the brand. … I listened to what they thought we should do, and they’re 100 percent on board. I’m very bullish on us doing great things together.

Contact Mark Brandau at
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