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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

Marketers Say ‘No’ to Progress
Many foodservice brands are promoting their lack of innovation. Should you join the pack?
Christopher Wolf addresses restaurant marketing.

Google and Bing are competing for high-tech search supremacy. Drug researchers are searching for cures to cancer, and car companies are comparing the most fuel-efficient vehicles. In contrast, a growing contingent of the food world is promoting its lack of innovation to consumers.

Regression pride is everywhere in the food industry. Shredded Wheat is bragging about the centenarian cereal’s lack of change: “Progress pays no role inside Shredded Wheat. Here, we put the ‘no’ in innovation … one honest ingredient since 1892.” Similarly, General Mills took a step back in time earlier this year, marketing some of its classic cereals in vintage boxes from the 1960s.

But in a category where portable cereal bars and edible milk straws have been introduced to keep on-the-run consumers engaged, one wonders why companies would highlight their lack of contemporary relevance. Lois Saldana, a blogger for J Walter Thompson’s, explains that, “Anxiety and nostalgia go hand in hand—when times are tough, it’s only natural to seek comfort in memories of what seems like a simpler era.”

That might be why Pepsi launched several throwback beverages recently, featuring not only imagery of the ’60s and ’70s, but also the formulation. The products are made with natural sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup and sport a retro-looking package.

Similarly, the restaurant industry is showing new pride in refusing to change menu items. A recent Wendy’s commercial focuses on its Spicy Chicken Sandwich as the one constant in a man’s ever-changing world of fashion, relationship, and hairstyle choices throughout life, all whirling around this well-anchored sandwich.

Five Guys Burger and Fries has been prominent in the news lately, thanks to the trend-setting Obamas, whose dining selections seem to be getting more press attention than some political and economic choices. According to the Web site, the menu has barely changed in 20 years: “Five Guys does not have plans to add any items to our menu. We follow the philosophy of focusing on a few items.”

Other successful noninnovation examples include family-dining concepts such as Cracker Barrel, which drips with old country kitsch. Retro burger chains like Sonic, Johnny Rocket’s, and dozens of local diner and drive-in concepts continue to ignore every low-fat and low-carb trend that hits the news radar.

And Fazoli’s urges Americans to raise their “spaghetti forks” high, promoting value and retro Italian food in an age of trendy “pasta dishes” like fusilli, tagliatelle, and orecchiette.

Even ever-evolving McDonald’s built retro-style units in recent years, featuring the original ’50s-style architecture with separated golden arches. And it revived its “two-all-beef-patties” jingle a year ago to promote the 40th anniversary of the Big Mac.

The question, though, is whether nostalgia and retro-appeal marketing messages can sell more burgers and beverages. As far as sugar versus HFCS sodas go, the move has encouraged a lot of taste tests, inspiring sales of both new and old product. Many bloggers seem to agree that the sugared-soda product tastes better, but one blogger on dismisses this retro appeal to natural sweetener’s “clever marketing trick, sure to fool millions into thinking they are being healthy.”

Similarly, the retro packaging on General Mills cereals spurred collectors to make a run to Target for some of the limited-edition goodies. But blogger and brand consultant Jason Voiovich says such strategies are a “painful admission” that these companies have nothing new to talk about. “Their brands are facing stiff competition from organic brands such as Kashi. Cheerios would be better advised to keep pushing the heart-healthy angle.”

But in the restaurant industry, simplicity versus new-fangled innovation might be striking the right chord. Food critics following the Obama administration’s restaurant choices have noted that, in addition to dining at upscale concepts like Citronelle, Blue Hill, and Equinox (where local sourcing, sustainability, and other politically correct considerations reign), both the president and first lady were spotted numerous times having power lunches at Five Guys Burgers and Fries and age-old Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C., where “keep it simple” is the motto, not “progress.”

When times are tough, its only natural to seek comfort in memories of what seems like a simpler era.

On the other hand, Cracker Barrel’s new Campfire Grill menu items, which are served in unrolled aluminum-foil pouches on a plate, are proof that nostalgia appeals don’t have to kill menu innovation in the process. Hearkening to age-old techniques of slow cooking over hot campfire coals, these Campfire dishes tout simplicity and old-fashioned flavor, even if they’ve only been on the menu a few months.

The company’s reputation of noninnovation helped raise its check average 3.1 percent this past year and earned it the Welcome Mat Award eight years in a row from the world’s largest RV organization, the Good Sam Club, according to CEO Michael Woodhouse in a May conference call to investors.

In contrast, this year also witnessed several high-profile line-crossing menu innovations like grilled chicken at fried chicken chains, crispy chicken at rotisserie chains, pasta and hot subs at pizza chains, and espresso drinks at burger chains. For the most part, these bold moves seem to be paying off despite the learning curve it causes for consumers.

But in an age where restaurants scramble to discover the latest “it” flavor, the savviest change agent du jour might be the one who keeps things fresh by appearing not to make any changes at all.

As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.