Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


In the late 1990s Colorado-based Boston Chicken Inc. was one of the leaders in the burgeoning restaurant category of home meal replacement, or HMR. The term home meal replacement applied to restaurant-style food for taking home, including, of course, such traditional take-out options as pizza and burgers and fries. But many Americans began to draw the line at having that kind of meal too often. Consequently, a market emerged for more thoroughly prepared and nutritionally beneficent ‘‘comfort foods.’’
Boston Chicken, Inc. began franchising and operating retail food service stores under the brand name Boston Market. The restaurants, located in 38 states, offered home meal replacement in the form of comfort foods, which included rotisserie-roasted chicken, roast turkey, baked ham, and meat loaf, as well as fresh vegetables, salads, and other side dishes. By mid-1998 there were 1,149 Boston Market stores in 38 states and the District of Columbia, of which 936 were company owned. Boston Chicken also owned a majority interest in Einstein/Noah Bagel Corp., and its subsidiary company, Progressive Food Concepts, marketed a line of prepared foods via supermarkets.
Boston Market made its name in the home meal replacement category by offering dinner entrees. In January 1996, however, it expanded its line to attract the lunch crowd. It introduced a line of ‘‘Carver’’ sandwiches containing ham, turkey, or meat loaf. The next year saw the rollout of the Extreme Carver, a larger sandwich containing bacon and cheese in addition to meat. The marketing campaign for the Extreme Carver was accompanied by a coupon offer granting 20 or 25 percent off the new sandwiches. A series of television commercials was created by the Santa Monica, California, ad agency Suissa Miller. The new spots parodied commercials for other products, specifically the spare, artsy ads for Calvin Klein designer fragrances. Filmed in black and white, the spots starred the sardonic ESPN sports anchor Keith Olbermann (who appeared in color for comic effect). They were designed to capitalize on the sports maven’s appeal among 18- to 29-year-old men, one of the key target markets for Extreme Carver sandwiches.

Boston Chicken was founded in 1988 by entrepreneur George Naddaff, one of the first men to see the potential of the burgeoning home food replacement industry. Brought up in Boston’s South End by parents who emigrated from Lebanon, Naddaff was shining shoes at age 10 and went through the auto shop course at Brighton High School before learning that he was allergic to grease. He switched his career interests to sales, starting out peddling baby furniture to expectant parents in their homes and using leads provided by the manufacturer. Naddaff began his franchising career in 1967, when he bought a regional franchise for Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken, opening 22 shops before selling the business in 1970. Having learned the fundamentals of business, he teamed with an early-childhood education specialist, Grace Mitchell, to start Living and Learning Centres Inc., a chain of child-care centers that grew to 48 locations in 10 years. They sold the chain in 1980 to Kinder-Care Learning Centers Inc. By that time Naddaff was involved with the start-up of VR Business Brokers Inc., which franchised local brokerages that listed small businesses for sale. Naddaff took the company public and sold 250 franchises, then sold the entire operation to a British group in 1987. The following year he used his venture capital connections to launch Boston Chicken, one of the first of the so-called home meal replacement franchises.
A spate of studies in the late 1990s confirmed that the home meal replacement trend that Naddaff foresaw was no fad. Consumers opted for a takeout dinner at home 61 percent more often than they did in the late 1980s, whereas they chose to eat dinner in a restaurant 4 percent less often, according to a 1995 NPD Group survey. ‘‘Time poverty’’ was the catalyst, and the underpinnings of the take-home trend seemed unlikely to change. In double-income families neither income earner had the time, energy, or desire to cook (or clean up after a meal). And while burger and pizza chains once satisfied Americans’ need for carryout, fast-food ennui set in. Customers were seeking ever-changing variety and freshness for dinner.
Naddaff served as chairman and CEO of Boston Chicken from 1988 to 1992, when he sold the company to a group of executives from Blockbuster Entertainment. By 1996 the company had expanded to more than 1,000 stores across 38 states and was spending $90 million a year on advertising. Under a so-called ‘‘virtual advertising plan,’’ the chain divided its creative work among three agencies, each commissioned to devise a campaign for individual Boston Market products. Suissa Miller was charged specifically with handling the ads for the Boston Carver sandwich line.
Suissa Miller’s 1996 ad campaign ‘‘Don’t Mess with Dinner’’ featured ordinary looking consumers searching for ways to feed their families home-cooked dinners with a minimum of fuss. In 1997, in order to target a more youthful crowd of sandwich enthusiasts, the company used wan models to spoof a popular series of Calvin Klein fragrance commercials. The campaign, called ‘‘Eat Something,’’ proved successful in audience tests and with the targeted audience. ‘‘Don’t Mess with Dinner’’ spots remained in use to promote the brand’s line of Family Meals, but they increasingly took on the mocking tone of the ‘‘Eat Something’’ campaign. One such spot spoofed super hero television shows and movies. The commercial, called ‘‘Searchlight,’’ features a harried mother trying to decide the best way to feed her family. She solves her problem only by flashing the giant image of a chicken into the night sky—much like Batman’s ‘‘Bat Signal.’’ Across town her husband picks up the signal and knows he must pick up Boston Market food for dinner.

In general, Boston Market aimed to capture the business of time-pressed and cooking-shy consumers (many of whom had discretionary income to burn) who craved freshly prepared take-home meals that were a step up from traditional fast food. These consumers wanted the fruits of a chef’s labor, but they wanted it without a wait. And they wanted to enjoy it in their own home. With its line of Extreme Carver lunch sandwiches, introduced in 1997, Boston Market was specifically targeting young adult males, the most avid consumers of fast food. The accompanying ad campaign ‘‘Eat Something’’ was designed to appeal to this more cynical ‘‘Generation X’’ demographic through parody and the appearance of smart-aleck ESPN sports anchor Olbermann, who hosted the nightly Sportscenter sports highlight show.

Boston Market in the late 1990s was one of the few restaurant chains catering to the home food replacement market. But that did not mean there was not vigorous competition to service harried consumers looking for home-cooked meals. Supermarkets were rushing in with expanded delis, packaged meals, rotisserie chicken, and sushi bars, blurring the lines separating fast-food emporiums, restaurants, and grocery stores. Feeding the trend further were specialty groceries and delis offering such items as tea-smoked duck, grilled portobello mushroom sandwiches on focaccia, and herb-roasted beef tenderloin with aioli.
Because many consumers wanted foods that they would cook themselves if they had the time, Boston Market’s menu leaned heavily toward American comfort foods. But many industry observers expected the home meal replacement market to take a turn for the ethnic and adventurous in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Newer home meal replacement players wanted to go beyond Boston Market-style carryout in hopes of stealing more grocery sales from supermarkets. Joining the category in Dallas was Eatzi’s Market and Bakery, an 8,000-square-foot establishment that was a cross between a gourmet grocery store and take-home deli/restaurant. The Eatzi’s experiment has attracted plenty of customers and attention.

Boston Market’s ‘‘Eat Something’’ spots were part of a trend toward parody advertising that gained steam in the mid-1990s. Commercials such as Sprite’s ‘‘Obey Your Thirst’’ drew their comic force from mocking the pomposity of other, more serious ads, usually for unrelated and noncompetitive products. These commercials attempted to place the mocking company or brand on the other side of the media ‘‘wall,’’ commenting on the pretensions of advertising. They were primarily aimed at hip, young consumers who may have felt jaded or too media savvy to be fooled by commercials that erect a farcical image or pitch a product’s miraculous effects. In the case of the ‘‘Eat Something’’ spots, the commercials poke fun at the pomposity of designer fragrance campaigns.
The first spot in this Boston Market campaign, ‘‘Eat Something,’’ was filmed in black and white by director John Mastromonaco. The 30-second piece features stringy-haired, emaciated-looking young models affecting bored, vacant stares along a rocky shoreline. ‘‘Emptiness, emptiness,’’ moans one such waif. ‘‘How can I fill this void of emptiness?’’ Emerging from out of nowhere, sports anchor Olbermann (who appears in full color) offers one possible answer: ‘‘Eat something!’’ What is the ‘‘burning from within’’ that the world-weary models feel? ‘‘It’s called hunger,’’ Olbermann quips. He then suggests that the models fatten up on the Extreme Carver sandwich, with its ‘‘ooey gooey’’ cheese sauce. In another ‘‘Eat Something’’ commercial, entitled ‘‘Angst Band,’’ a grunge rock band is shown rehearsing one of its downbeat songs. ‘‘I feel empty, nothing inside,’’ the singer keens. Olbermann then enters, advising:
‘‘Hey Mozart, eat something!’’ Additional spots in this campaign spoof daytime soap operas and the relationship between professional athletes and their agents. All the spots rely on the element of surprise to turn consumer expectations upside down, while at the same time skewering the overly thin look that was prevalent among models.
The strategy was based on the premise that consumers tended to tune out straightforward advertising messages in an age of media overload. ‘‘Humorously portraying universally recognized cultural icons is an effective way to break through the intense media clutter in today’s marketplace,’’ said Bill McDonald, Boston Market’s chief marketing officer. ‘‘Consumers relate to our having some fun with common images from popular culture.’’ Having a laugh at other advertisers’ expense was not, however, the only goal of the ads. Added McDonald: ‘‘Our new advertisements are humorous, but also deliver an important message to consumers that Boston Market stores offer quick, quality meal solutions for a variety of occasions.’’ Trey Hall, Boston Market’s vice president of marketing, stressed the importance of the ads in positioning Boston Market products as fun and enjoyable.

Dinner patterns in America have changed rapidly. In the late 1990s people felt they had less and less time, and it seemed they did not want to spend lots of it making (or even planning for) dinner. As a result, many meals eaten at home were bought somewhere else, and food industry gurus have termed this practice ‘‘home meal replacement,’’ or HMR. Not surprisingly, a whole litany of attendant marketing terms and acronyms began to spring up and have been flung across restaurant industry conference tables nationwide. They include: ‘‘Access Mode’’ (the way a consumer chooses to use a restaurant—dining in, delivery, takeout, and drive-through are access modes);
‘‘Center-of-the-Plate Protein’’ (the food portion that generally defines what is being eaten—mostly meat and poultry); ‘‘Daypart’’ (most consumers call this ‘‘lunch’’ if it occurs around noon, but the industry prefers calling it ‘‘afternoon daypart’’); ‘‘QSR’’ (or quickservice restaurant, better known as a fast-food establishment); ‘‘HFFU’’ (pronounced hoofoo, the acronym stands for ‘‘heavy fast-food user,’’ which tended to be young and male); and ‘‘Share of Stomach’’ (the ultimate goal of restaurant industry operators, this signified the portion of foods from restaurants and supermarkets that occupied a consumer’s stomach).

Boston Market’s ‘‘Eat Something’’ commercials proved fairly popular with consumers but were judged not to be very effective. A USA Today poll found that just over 25 percent of those polled liked the spots a lot. Only 14 percent deemed them ‘‘effective.’’ The ‘‘Eat Something’’ commercials did prove to be highly effective at sticking in the minds of consumers, however; audience testing elicited recall in 95 percent of viewers who saw the spots. Popularity was slightly higher among Boston Market’s targeted group of consumers, males between 18 and 29 years old; 31 percent of those in this age range polled by USA Today reported they liked the ads a lot, compared with 26 percent among 30- to 49-year-old consumers. Among industry observers and insiders, the spots were given credit for their humor but were generally faulted on strategic grounds. Writing in Advertising Age magazine, columnist Bob Garfield conceded the ads were very funny. ‘‘Not since Marshall McLuhan popped out of the movie line in Annie Hall to deflate the academic blowhard has there been a more welcome intrusion into our suspension of disbelief,’’ Garfield opined. He also found the casting of Olbermann inspired. Garfield, however, criticized the strategy behind the ads, calling ‘‘Eat Something’’ ‘‘a very good commercial for a very bad marketing idea.’’ ‘‘Boston Market has neither the number nor the character of locations to compete with the sandwich slingers of the world,’’ Garfield groused. ‘‘So why, for the sake of whatever marginal growth they might enjoy by attracting a few hungry teenagers, dilute the brand meaning, brand message, and media budget?’’ Competitors in the fast-food sector were no more kind. Scott Lippitt, an account manager at fast-food giant Arby’s, cast doubt on the idea of spoofing products outside the comfort food category. ‘‘What point is Boston Market trying to make,’’ Lippitt complained to Shoot magazine, ‘‘other than saying, ‘We’re relevant to this younger target [market]?’ The last time I looked, people weren’t deciding to make a choice between spending money on eating at Boston Market or buying perfume.’’

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