Wendy's wigs out with new ads

Walk into one of Wendy's 5,900 North America locations this week, and you may think you've walked into a Wendy's commercial.

The wacky, red, pigtail wig from Wendy's wen ads has been a hit with consumers, and the burger chain, in need of a marketing hit, is trying to ride the wave.

Last week, 5,000 wigs were sent to local restaurant managers and public relations folks for store employees to wear. "Hired heads" are also being sent to sports or entertainment events.

Restaurants also are putting out big cardboard placards with space cut out below the wig so people can insert their own head and pose for silly pictures. Next month, the red pigtails will be the centerpiece of a Web promotion.

The wig campaign is the first marketing concept to really catch on for Wendy's since the death five years ago of Dave Thomas, Wendy's affable founder and the longtime face of its advertising. "When we tested the (wig) concept, focus groups suggested it would be a good idea, but we didn't expect it to catch on this quickly," said Ian Rowden, chief marketing officer.

A handful of wigs are used for each commercial shoot. Wig doubles are necessary because the synthetic fibers need to be refreshed after about an hour of use. A few more were used this summer to put on publicity stunts at the premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

The wig symbolizes the proverbial light bulb clicking on over one's head — when it dawns on the wearer that he or she should break from the fast-food crowd and choose a better burger at Wendy's. The ads are bizarre — but they are essentially a younger, hipper spin on Thomas' "The Food Is Better" theme driven home in his more than 100 commercials. Rallying cries go back to Wendy's basics: "hot, juicy burgers" cooked to order from patties that are "fresh, never frozen."

"Dave knew what Wendy's stood for, and for whatever reasons, the values that he communicated got lost," Rowden said.

Lack of a strong marketing message has been one factor blamed for slow growth in Wendy's sales and a lagging share price. The lack of shareholder gains has made the chain vulnerable to pressure from billionaire investor Nelson Peltz, whose Trian fund owns about 9% of Wendy's shares, to put the chain on the block. Peltz may be a bidder and last month got the OK to begin reviewing Wendy's financial information.

The brash new campaign may not save Wendy's from a takeover, but it could boost sales by bringing in more of the younger consumers who have fueled recent growth at rivals McDonald's and Burger King.

The ads' effect on sales won't be seen until Wendy's reports third-quarter results next month — the chain no longer reports sales month-to-month.

Dennis Lombardi, vice president of food-service strategies for WD Partners, a store designer and developer based in Wendy's hometown of Dublin, Ohio, says the youth appeal is a risk Wendy's had to take.

"Wendy's had a nice little niche for itself not trying to go after that 16- to 23-year-old consumer. As the brand starts shifting, you run the risk of losing that older segment," he said. "But it's manageable risk, and they have to do it because that younger cohort is a big quick-service-restaurant user. Wendy's can't afford to ignore an opportunity."

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