Monday, May 1

Freezing A Crisis With A Frosty

Maybe.

That was my conclusion after reading about a marketing study, "Is That a Finger in My Chili?", as highlighted in a Las Vegas Sun article. Maybe the study's solution would have worked. Maybe not.

While Kathryn A. Braun-LaTour and her husband, Michael LaTour, are right on several points--giving away free Frosty milkshakes was a mistake, addressing a problem is a must when facing a crisis, and that emotional advertising can be extremely effective--the study reaches too far in suggesting that the best way to handle a crisis is to appeal to positive memories of that company.

The Wendy's case was much more complex as a study in crisis communication. First and foremost, the company was already suffering from an eroding market share, limited target audience (older baby boomers), and McDonald's ability to break into the chicken sandwich and entree-sized salad portion of the quick service market. That said, the finger incident, planted or not, was similar to pouring salt on an open wound. Second, the incident created an immediate negative and emotionally-charged impression (Wendy's=finger), not necessarily of the brand, but certainly an unappetizing image.

To their credit, the Wendy's team did a lot of things right in terms of crisis communication. Of course, the one thing they did wrong, to offer free Frosty milkshakes as an offering attached, unfortunately, to the one image they needed to erase from our short-term memories, had the most impact. The broadcast media play--complete with the finger image and Wendy's brand--outpaced their paid advertising and reinforced the unappetizing image all over again. Not to mention, a Frosty milkshake has a very limited appeal in that not many people appreciate a milkshake you have to eat with a spoon.

If the Wendy's team wanted to reward loyal customers for sticking by them during a crisis that was proven not to be their fault, an item with broader appeal and a better message may have helped. As it turned out, their message was nothing more than distress advertising, which generally produces mixed short-term results and few, if ever, long-term results.

Sure, the LaTours are right in suggesting that Wendy's needed to shift the focus from the finger incident to something positive. But false memories of a Wendy's that never existed? I don't think so. This is where I depart from their solution.

The study bases much of its claims around a survey filled out by university students, which are not representative of Wendy's traditional core audience. According to the story, the survey rated the students' emotional response to the Frosty ad vs. nostalgia advertising designed to appeal to their emotions. Not surprisingly, the students preferred the nostalgia advertising. It might also be worthwhile to point out that the test advertising had the benefit of being disassociated with the finger story in that the nostalgia advertising was not competing against daily news coverage of the incident at a 10-1 ratio. In short, given the same circumstances, the LaTours' ads would have been placed under similar scrutiny, with the public wondering if Wendy's was trying to make them forget recent events.

The bottom-line: the decision to appeal to a person's positive memories of that company during a crisis is a roll of the dice. It make work sometimes. It may not work other times. It depends on the specific circumstances of the event and the company. Sure, we all take comfort in believing communication formulas work miracles, but the reality is a sound communication process-not a formula-will guide you toward an effective resolution in a crisis communication situation.

So would the LaTours' ads have worked? Maybe, but I wouldn't have banked on it, especially if those ads contained images that never existed at Wendy's before. A better test of Wendy's ability to rebound in the face of changing times is just ahead.

Wendy's is working to broaden its audience by marketing to the 16-to-28 crowd. They finally have a clear marketing message, which they haven't had since Dave Thomas died in 2002. And, they're testing new Frescata deli-style sandwiches. Now that, my friends, is smart stuff. I look forward to seeing how it plays out for my former 'high-school job' employer.

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