Next-gen chains eating up more of the QSR promo market

Helpful providers of affordable family meals, or shameless peddlers of the very fat that has contributed to the pandemic obesity in North America. Whatever you may think of traditional quick-service restaurant chains, they still appear to be in the driver's seat when it comes to kids promos.
March 1, 2003

Helpful providers of affordable family meals, or shameless peddlers of the very fat that has contributed to the pandemic obesity in North America. Whatever you may think of traditional quick-service restaurant chains, they still appear to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to kids promos.

McDonald’s is in the midst of a 10-year relationship with Disney, and ironically the exclusivity clause which precludes the burger giant from doing promos with non-Disney animated properties has been cited as a factor in the decline of the burger chain’s Happy Meal business. However, although McDonald’s has reported a decline in sales of its Happy Meals (which account for more than 20% of U.S. transactions) for the last three years, the chain is still considered the meal leader when it comes to kids.

Burger King and Wendy’s, meanwhile, each have the luxury of being able to choose only the most predictably successful promotional partners beyond Disney. ‘Burger King shops the market for the hottest and best properties,’ says Phyllis Ehrlich, VP of promotions for Cartoon Network, which finished up a Powerpuff Girls/Dragon Ball Z premium-based promo with the chain on February 28.

The fact is, despite the public’s alleged concern over fast food’s contribution to childhood obesity, these chains still have major clout – and their promotional wherewithal is something to which partners are attracted. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity for what could be called the next-gen QSR – particularly those chains positioning themselves as healthier alternatives.

As the food area has grown, so too have the promo partnering possibilities, says Scholastic Entertainment senior VP of marketing and consumer products Leslye Schaefer. And next-gen QSRs are in a good position to pick up the excess.

Scholastic has partnered with both large-scale QSR players and smaller chains, and there’s little doubt that size alone can sometimes be a key determining factor in the pairing-up decision. Last year, for example, the company partnered with Wendy’s for a Clifford promotion in which extensive signage, a national TV spot, tray liners and elaborate activity bags highlighted an array of collectible premiums. But the year before, when Clifford was first finding his legs on TV, the promo partner of choice was Subway, and the initiative was much more understated with one premium, limited signage and only a few local TV spots that were paid for by willing franchise owners.

But promos with smaller chains need not be so limited in scope. These outlets are fully capable of putting some heavy weight behind a promotion, going beyond the simple signage-and-premium formula into tray liners, bag activities and a web presence. For example, Scholastic partnered with Fazoli’s for Schoolhouse Rock during the 2002 back-to-school window. With just over 400 restaurants, the Italian fast-serve chain isn’t exactly huge, but it was an ideal fit for the property, says Schaefer. The retro appeal of the vignettes was captured in high-quality activity pack premiums including a Conjunction Junction sticker station, with additional support coming from eye-catching POS materials.

‘The bigger the QSR, the more likely they’ll wait until a property has proven itself,’ points out Cartoon Network’s Ehrlich. The investment involved in these top QSR deals – with TV dollars alone accounting for a big chunk (consider that McDonald’s spent close to US$600 million on U.S. TV advertising in 2001, according to AdAge Magazine) – makes that rule-of-thumb understandable. But it also gives other QSR operators the opportunity to tap into the excitement a new property can generate.

Cartoon has worked with Subway on many such pre-hit promotions, says Ehrlich, adding that the chain’s director of marketing Chris Carroll ‘has a great eye for new properties and is willing to take a chance on them, based on our track record.’ Last year, for example, Subway ran premium-based Kids’ Pak promotions for Samurai Jack (August 19 to September 29) and Time Squad (September 30 to November 17), and the chain has embarked on another North American promo for Kids’ WB! Mexican wrestling toon Mucha Lucha that will bring premium toys and a web game on into play until the end of March.

Subway isn’t ashamed to admit that, unlike kid-reliant QSR leaders McDonald’s and Burger King, it’s not focused on children. That explains why it does not even try to reach Happy Meal status with its premium-based Kids’ Paks. ‘In general, we’re known for being a place that offers a healthier alternative to traditional greasy or fatty fast food,’ says Les Winograd, public relations coordinator for the chain. But that health reputation is not something that appeals to kids – it appeals to parents. The Kids’ Pak is simply an insurance against kids forcing parents to bypass Subway for more traditional QSR fare, according to Winograd.

That’s not to say that the company pays no attention at all to its Kids’ Pak. But it does mean that it can rely on its strength as a chain; its sheer number of outlets (making big news when it topped McDonald’s last year, with more than 13,000 North American locations) allows impact with very little extra advertising support, save for some modest in-store signage. ‘We want to appeal to children,’ says Winograd. ‘But we’re not in the business of selling toys; we’re in the business of selling sandwiches.’

In the current environment, no one is certain how much influence young children wield when it comes to choosing a QSR. Does their adoration of McDonald’s and the like override their parents’ concern about health issues? That’s something custom research firm Decision Insight/KidSay is trying to determine. In April, the Kansas City-based company expects to publish its Kids Licensing Report, a portion of which will take a look at where younger kids ages four to eight want to eat, why, and how often they get their own way, according to executive VP Cathy Allin.

The report builds on DI’s bi-monthly Trend Tracker report, which interviews 1,000 public- and private-school kids ages eight to 15 across the U.S. The firm began to notice a distinct shift in KidSay respondents’ restaurant-going habits about a year ago; they seemed to be moving away from traditional QSRs and showing a marked preference for casual dining establishments like Applebee’s and TGIFriday’s.

And teens may well be driving the trend towards the new buzz in QSRs – quick-casual dining. Resting somewhere between traditional fast food and casual dining, quick-casuals tend to have nicer décor and better food at a slightly higher price point than typical fast food, according to Greg Sanders, editor and associate publisher of QSR Magazine. Yet they still offer speed and convenience.

Wendy’s-owned Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and Chipotle (co-owned by McDonald’s and Fazoli’s) are two examples of quick-casual chains that are certain to expand over the coming year. There’s no indication yet what this segment will mean to kids marketing, says Sanders, but it does indicate that the top QSRs are very much aware of the movement towards healthier fare.

Bill Burke, director of marketing for New York’s Sesame Workshop, says that the company’s year-old consumer marketing group (it used to leave promotions up to its licensees) defines its QSR parameters much more loosely, expanding into casual dining because the relatively unhurried atmosphere allows for more interaction with the kid consumer and a greater chance to involve parents.

Sesame has paired up twice with Applebee’s, for example – for Dragon Tales in 2001 and Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat this past fall. ‘What it allowed us to do was extend some of our messages and educational goals,’ he says. The Sagwa promotion, for example, featured activity guides that introduced children to Chinese culture and celebrations. In addition, Burke says the sit-down family environment was ideal for letting parents know about the Workshop’s goals and initiatives. This summer, Sbarro will be part of an integrated Dragon Tales promotion in which bags will feature activities and a mission message.

Auntie Anne’s, a mall-based purveyor of hand-rolled pretzels, is also in a unique position. As a self-described faith-based company that aims to put ethics and spiritual values before profit, it’s necessarily choosier about the properties and partners with which it’s willing to ally. That explains why its first national campaign, currently running, is for the vid release of Jonah, A VeggieTales Movie. John Vanderzell, the Gap, Pennsylvania-based chain’s director of marketing, says that Big Idea first approached Auntie Anne’s to tie into the theatrical release of the biblical movie, but there wasn’t enough time to implement a program in all its franchises. ‘VeggieTales aligns closely with the background of our company,’ he says. The property also targets the chain’s core audience – women 18 to 45, many of whom have children.

The VeggieTales promotion features a plush Jonah doll that’s available with an Auntie Anne’s purchase, while the video includes a coupon for the chain. The company has dabbled in other local promotions, but has rarely found appropriate partnerships. ‘It’s something we’ve kept an eye on as we’ve grown,’ says Vanderzell, but the 750-strong franchise chain hasn’t pursued promos in a concentrated way.

Speaking of keeping an eye on potential partners’ corporate citizenship, up until now, the only concern for licensors has been how their characters and brands are represented. But as the traditional kid-targeting fast food chains come under more fire for their perceived role in the problem of youth obesity, promo partners may be forced to sit up and take note. Could it get to the point where a promo partner chooses to avoid a certain chain because of its ill-repute with parents? QSR Magazine’s Greg Saunders hasn’t seen any signs of that happening yet. ‘But it certainly seems like a possibility,’ he says.

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