Where’s the Beef?

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

26 September 2011

“Where’s the Beef?” is back to fail again

Where’s the beef? One of the fallacies of mass media marketing has always been that, if the spot or tagline is recalled and even becomes famous, it creates preference. As if awareness was all it took to beat the competition.

However, many of the most recalled advertisements have stolen exactly zero market share.

The most significant example is Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign from the 80s. The tagline, written by advertising legend Cliff Freeman, has entered the cultural vernacular as a stand-in for what is missing, whether it’s discussing a politician’s platform or what’s inside hamburgers.

What people forget is that the “Where’s the Beef?” campaign, while certainly famous, did not steal market share for Wendy’s. It just became an incredibly recalled skit that did very little to create preference. That’s the reason why it didn’t run all that long.

where's-the-beefIt’s for that reason why I find it peculiar that Wendy’s is going to back to it in a new campaign to unveil its new line of Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy Cheeseburgers.

Wendy’s must really be getting desperate – as I’ve noted in earlier blogs, the fast food hamburger industry is struggling – because it’s going full-on nostalgia route by also airing TV spots featuring Wendy herself, the daughter of founder Dave Thomas and namesake of the hamburger chain.

I’m all for being aggressive – Wendy’s is promising to spend millions on this effort – and I often feel advertising “back in the day” was more effective than the entertainment-style approach of today’s marketing.

But there was a fundamental reason why “Where’s the Beef?” didn’t work: It said nothing about who customers are when they eat at Wendy’s. The phrase was about the hamburger, not the customer.

This “rebranding,” of sorts, will be money wasted, I promise you, because it’s a fancy, expensive and nostalgic-wrapped version of product advertising that says we have bigger widgets. Which, as smart marketers know, does nothing to create brand preference.

The only way it would work – and I do expect a short-term bump for Wendy’s based on the media buy itself – is if the highest emotional intensities in the market are bigger burgers (something Wendy’s already tried with the Baconater and chains like Hardee’s have also attempted) and nostalgia for wanting to be like Wendy. I’d like to see the market research on that.

The fast-food hamburger industry is in trouble because, in tough economic times, the only leverage you have with customers is brand. It’s the reason why McDonald’s continues to hold its No. 1 position. It is the only one in the market with a brand.

The rest, it seems, are still scrambling for new ideas – even digging one up from 27 years ago.


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