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Was the Culver's Oscars Ad Worth It?
Culver's aired its first national commercial during the Academy Awards, yet it has stores in only 17 states.
image: Culver's ad in Academy Awards.

Just like this year’s big Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire, among Sunday’s Academy Awards advertisers there was also a story of an underdog.

Most Americans have never heard of Culver’s. Yet the chain ran its first national commercial during the Feb. 22 pre-Oscars red carpet coverage on E!.

“We're not in all the states,” says Chris Contino, vice president of marketing for Culver's, a burger chain with about 400 restaurants in 17 states. “From an ROI perspective, it would be the worst buy possible.”

So why would the chain pay for a 60-second spot on one of the biggest advertising nights of the year?

“We said, ‘Let's do that. Let's show the world who we are,’” Contino says.

The decision to air the national commercial came just a couple of weeks before the Academy Awards when Culver's executives ended the company's annual convention wanting to do something to reward the successful franchisees who helped Culver's grow during the recession. The company had already planned its year-long marketing campaign but decided to make a last-minute addition.

The Oscars, which Contino considers “the Super Bowl for women,” was the perfect fit.

“Our target skews more female in many ways,” he says.

The resulting commercial was part-morale booster for the company's franchisees, part-message to the public:

“We're not going to participate in this economic downturn.”

The company also ran spots in 10 markets during the actual awards ceremony.

More than 36 billion people tuned into the Academy Awards Sunday night, up from last year's all time–low of 32 billion last year, according to estimates from Nielsen Media Research reports. The figure puts this year's show at the third-lowest spot in Oscars history in terms of viewership.

“This is big for a little chain that started 25 years ago in a small town in Wisconsin,” Contino says. “Even if the results were lower, it's still more people than we've ever reached before.”

The primary purpose of the commercials, which feature a cynic named Dave who can't believe Culver's employees are so nice, is to encourage regular customers to visit more often.

Culver's has no national expansion plans that coincide with the commercial.

“Our growth strategy is to fill in where we are right now,” Contino says. Development plans are in progress for 20 restaurants to open this year in the brand's 52 markets.

In addition to Sunday's viewership, more than 15,500 people have watched the commercial on YouTube. That figure is about 10 times the number of visits to other Culver's commercials on the site.

Additionally, 86 YouTube users commented on the new commercial as of press time. Many criticize the spot because it doesn't focus on Culver's menu items.

“Any reaction is positive,” Contino says. “One: they saw it, and two: they remembered it.”

But not all the YouTube comments are negative. Contino says one in particular seems like it came straight out of the creative brief Culver's gave its advertising agency.

We said, ‘Let's do that. Let's show the world who we are.’”

“The comment was to the effect of, ‘People need to calm down and enjoy life. This is what Culver's is all about. If you don't understand the commercial, you haven't been Culverized,’” he says. “It's almost cult-like that these people who have been to Culver's, whether they're people who work there or they're guests, get it.”

Another national commercial will be broadcast via satellite during the Chicago Cubs’ spring training game. Additionally, the next of the campaign's five commercials will air just after Easter.

In the end, Contino says the Oscar spot was “absolutely” worth it, citing a lingering buzz about Culver's in trade and consumer press and among customers. “But I can't fully answer that question until we see the transactions in the restaurants,” Contino says. “Day one, being Monday, was a positive transaction day for us versus a year ago at this time. Day one we did pretty good.”

Robin Hilmantel is an editorial intern at QSR.