Salad days

This summer fast-food chains are 'freshening up' their menus to offer casual-dining experience - but is going green for everyone?

Salad sexy? In recent weeks, nary a fast-food chain has been able to resist vamping up the normally nondescript lettuce leaf.

Arby’s, Pizza Pizza, McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway have all launched versions of the entrée salad this spring hoping to reach the increasingly health-conscious palate of the North American consumer. For most, the strategy is to lure more female customers, who are less likely to sit down to a burger and fries.

But is a greener image the right fit for all the chains? And should the fickle consumer, known to love-and-leave diet trends as fast as you can say brussels sprout, be the impetus for change?

Toronto-based McDonald’s Canada has launched a new saladplus line in direct response to consumer demand, according to VP marketing Lisa Laykish, who adds that the company will ‘continue to support all its menu items.’

McDonald’s hopes adding four new salads to its menu of Big Mac and fries will keep its traditional consumer happy while attracting a previously elusive market: women.

The print ads, created by Cossette in Toronto, feature young, multicultural women sporting trendy fitted Ts with catch phrases such as ‘Loved by some, wanted by plenty’ and ‘It’s not easy being perfect’ holding one of the four salads.

In the TV ads, these women amble through downtown streets, Stepometer (a gadget that counts your steps) clipped to the hip. It’s a decidedly healthy look for the world’s number one fast food chain. One they hope will appeal to the mom who regularly visits McDonald’s with her kids and only buys a drink.

‘We’re giving mom more choice so that when she walks into McDonald’s with the kids there is something for her,’ says Laykish.

Already launched in the U.S., Canadians will be able to sample Burger King’s three new salads starting June 7. And while Toronto-based Burger King is also hoping to tap into the health-conscious female, its campaign will mainly target the 18-49 demographic looking for more variety with their meal, says Lisa Brenneman, Burger King’s national marketing manager. ‘Based on our research, the number one thing guests want is freshness. Taste was number two.’

But the shifts in menu go beyond consumer demand, says Bruce Philp, president of Toronto-based GWP Brand Engineering. ‘There is some genuine fear in the quick meal business that Atkins and other low-carb diets will do real and lasting damage to their business.’

Pointing to the large aging but young-at-heart population and increased concern about the long-term effects of how we eat, Philp says that the chains have little choice but to make some changes. But he warns restructuring a company’s image is risky.

‘This [salad craze] feels really faddish,’ he says. ‘This trend got hot fairly suddenly and it makes me wonder if it’s really here to stay.’

At least one chain is holding out hope that this trend will have some staying power. Already strong in the delivery market, Pizza Pizza has hinged some of its rebranding as a sit down casual restaurant (quick-casual, in industry speak) to the launch of its line of Gourmet Salads. It’s a move that its research supports and consumers are asking for, says Pat Finelli, VP of marketing.

‘Ten years ago we were heavily male skewed. Now there are more women and families in our restaurants, ‘ he says.

Known for sponsorship of the city’s sports teams, Toronto-based Pizza Pizza wants to continue to attract more women to its stores. To help do that, it used the surprising tactic of teaming up with La Vie en Rose for a recent fashion show that launched the chain’s and the retailer’s new summer lines. Held at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, salad ingredients were transformed into fashion accessories like wedding veils and hats.

Other campaign elements include posters on 500 transit shelters, TTC and GO Transit ads, four weeks of radio spots and 4.8 million print drops. The campaign – created in-house – aims to highlight the ‘uniqueness’ of the Strawberry Sensation and Mandarin Chicken salads, says Finelli.

Similarly, Mississauga, Ont.-based Arby’s Market Fresh Line campaign – created by Doner Advertising in the U.S. – pushes the message that its new salads are similar to what consumers could get in casual dining restaurants.

Karen Scott, Arby’s of Canada director of marketing, says the company is not rebranding because of the salad trend. ‘Arby’s has been moving in this direction for some time.’ It too is trying to ‘attract a different consumer’ with its three new salads. She says, however, that women aren’t the main target. ‘There may be a slight female skew because they are salads, but they appeal to both men and women.’

Scott says the Arby’s customer is older compared to other chains (25-49) and has a more sophisticated palate, and based on convincing consumer research she doesn’t foresee the company abandoning salads anytime soon: ‘[It's] hard to fail,’ she says.

But going green appears to make more sense when it’s in line with a QSR’s core positioning, which may not be the case for some of these players who have built their brands around pizza or burgers. Philp thinks McDonald’s may have the most to lose. ‘I worry about McDonald’s.’ He says its record has been spotty when it comes to product launches (just think McPizza and McLean). ‘The public has said you are this [burgers and fries] to us.’

‘The best strategy is to find virtue in that rather than try to change stripes,’ he says.

It’s a strategy, according to Philp, that Subway seems to get right.

The company has built its brand on offering a healthy alternative to consumers. The launch of its expanded salad menu last March is in keeping with that image, says Subway spokesperson Les Winograd.

‘The introduction of new salads has been many years in the making,’ he says, adding it is not an effort to ‘head off bad publicity.’

But McDonald’s spokesperson Ron Christianson says, based on sales results in the U.S. and Australia, as well as Canadians’ current response, the burger giant is confident of success.

‘No one is saying that we are not a burgers and fries company. We know that’s our core business,’ he says. ‘Our menu is always evolving because the customer is boss.’

Regardless, Philp says, the chains should be wary of the fickle consumer: ‘I would be very reluctant to risk rebranding myself and get blown around by a momentary dieting trend,’ he says.

Now the only question remaining seems to be how long this attraction to lettuce will last.

Rotten or ripe?

The lettuce leaf is a vegetable in desperate need of accompaniment, so the fast food chains have taken on the task of adding a little zing – with varying degrees of success, as Strategy discovered in this taste test. (All retail for $5.99, salads rated out of five)

Arby’s

The Martha’s Vineyard Salad

3.5 out of 5

In a word: delightful. Good variety of lettuce, big chunks of grilled chicken and crunchy apples. Grape tomatoes and tasty dried cranberries add some zing. So fresh, I actually enjoyed the taste of the vegetables and skipped the raspberry vinaigrette dressing.

Verdict: Yummy, start to finish.

Burger King

Fire-Grilled Garden Salad

3 out of 5

The least adventurous of the lot with ho-hum ingredients (baby carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, Spanish onions, diced chicken). While the freshest of the four, it simply had no personality.

Verdict: Up the vamp quotient.

(This taste test occurred in a Burger King test store. The salads launch on June 7.)

McDonald’s

Bacon Ranch Salad

2.5 out of 5

Tasty, but with the real bacon bits, mobs of shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese and Newman’s Own Ranch dressing, I considered a 20-minute Tae Bo session for dessert. The warm, sliced Chicken McGrill was a little salty, but lettuce and grape tomatoes get good grades for freshness.

Verdict: Good, but not for the calorie counters.

Pizza Pizza

Strawberry Sensation

2 out of 5

Enterprising, but the combination of strawberries and goat cheese was for me, a little disconcerting. The chicken bits weren’t substantial. And when topped with orange poppy seed dressing, it became downright curious. Low marks for freshness.

Verdict: Pizza anyone?

– by Natalia Williams