Burger flip puts food chain in a pickle

Mike Brown

I t’s a continuing source of amazement, and amusement, to me how corporate America believes its market—us—thinks.

Latest case in point, the fastfood hamburger chain, Wendy’s.

It’s been around for 42 years and originally rocketed into the first tier of national chains with a couple of brilliant marketing campaigns.

The first featured its founder, folksy, likeable Dave Thomas whose inspirational life story is a true American classic.

Then came the “where’s the beef” commercials which boosted 81-year-old Clara Peller to rock star status in the 1980s.

But that all ran its course, Thomas died in 2002 and the chain had seen a considerable slip in its sales. Wendy’s executives noted they hadn’t actually changed their hamburgers since 1969.

So they embarked on a 2-1/2 year study, titled “Project Gold Hamburger” (no, really) to determine how to re-invent the famous Wendy’s square burger. According to the Associated Press, here’s what they did:

• They contacted a pickle chemist.

• They agonized over whether to switch from white onions to red.

• They sent their executives across the country to try out burgers at their competitors. (Why across the country? Why not just drive down Burnet Road in Austin?)

• They quizzed customers on their knowledge of lettuce.

• They agonized over whether to put plain or crinkled pickles on Wendy’s burgers. (I don’t relish this obsession with pickles).

• They polled 10,000 people and found out the public was comfortable with Wendy’s burgers but thought it had gotten “ behind the times,” whatever that meant.

Now, instead of all that time and effort, I’ll bet most folks would have approached the situation this way:

• See the burger.

• Pick it up.

• Take a bite.

• Ask self, “is it good and could it be better?”

Before we get too judgmental, though, look at the task faced by Wendy’s and most everyone else in the fast-food hamburger business.

Right off the top, McDonald’s has 50 percent of that market locked up tighter than the melted cheese on a filet-o-fish.

So everyone else is fighting for one-half of the business.

Well, what happened?

Big shock. Wendy’s came out with a new sandwich, something that had obviously never happened before in the fast-food restaurant business. It’s called “Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy,” in homage to its founder.

It has extra cheese, more meat and a buttered bun. It has no mustard and the onions are red instead of white.

And—drum roll—the pickles are now crinkled!

But, and it’s a big one, there’s also potential danger in changing a long-established product.

Anyone remember the “New Coke” and “Clear Pepsi?”

But the classic product/marketing disaster involved Schlitz beer in the 1970s.

Schlitz was the No. 2 suds sold in America when, without really telling anyone, it changed its formula, apparently to save money, and made its product taste differently.

At about this time Schlitz execs okayed what is generally conceded to be the worst advertising campaign in history.

It was called “Don’t Take Away My Gusto,” but came to be known as the “Drink Schlitz or We’ll Kill You” ad.

It featured a guy with a surly disposition and a snarling mountain lion getting in the face of viewers, accusing someone of “ wanting to take away his ‘gusto’.”

And you’ve got to understand when this commercial was mostly shown and to whom. During Sunday NFL games to already testosterone-charged males.

Great idea.

Apparently it really turned off two classes of viewers, those who didn’t drink beer and those who did.

Neither of whom bought any Schlitz.

If only Schlitz had thought to make him say “don’t take away my crinkled pickles.”

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2011-10-06 digital edition

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