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Brand Strategy McDonald's Daytona 500

Wendy’s ‘Where’s the Beef?’ is back (again). Experts wonder if the TikTok generation cares

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By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

February 17, 2023 | 8 min read

The iconic slogan, which first appeared in 1984 and has been relaunched for three subsequent campaigns, will be brought back to life starting this weekend at the Daytona 500. Marketing experts chime in about why this reboot may not have much meat to it.

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Wendy’s debuted “Where’s the Beef?” in a 1984 ad designed as a dig at the brand’s competitors. / Adobe Stock

Wendy’s announced earlier this week that it’s bringing back its iconic slogan: “Where’s the Beef?” The revival will kick off in Daytona this weekend with a Wendy’s-themed schema, emphasizing the brand’s signature square buns, emblazoned on the No. 42 Chevy Camaro driven by Nascar driver Noah Gragson. Gragson and Wendy’s first joined forces in 2020.

Wendy’s posted a video to its official Twitter account on Monday, giving viewers a 360-degree view of an animated rendering of the Wendy’s-branded Camaro. The flanks of the car are adorned with an image of Wendy wearing a racing helmet and goggles. On the hood appears a massive Wendy’s cheeseburger under “The Beef.” On the bumper, the words “Wendy’s has the Beef.”

“Where’s the Beef?” debuted in a famous Wendy’s commercial from 1984, titled “Fluffy bun.” In the spot, a trio of elderly women is admiring a large hamburger bun, but their moods fall when they lift the top half and find a distressingly small beef patty. That original ad was a snub at some of Wendy’s competitors, specifically Burger King and McDonald’s (the Whopper and the Big Mac are mentioned by name), which the narrator claims “give you a lot less beef on a lot of bun.”

The slogan struck a chord with the zeitgeist, and in the decades since it first appeared it’s become something of a catchphrase used to refer to anything which seems grandiose but lacks any real substance. Wendy’s has repeatedly capitalized on the slogan’s success, reviving it first in 2011 (“Here’s the Beef”), again in 2016 (“Where’s the Beef… From”), and yet again in 2020 (when the US experienced a beef shortage during the early days of the pandemic).

By rejuvenating a classic slogan, Wendy’s is aiming to strike a nostalgic chord with older customers and simultaneously catch the eyes of a younger audience. “Nostalgic campaigns are always tricky, and even more so today when curiosity moves at the speed of a swipe, click, or TikTok,” says Rick Suter, editor of USA Today Ad Meter. “Regardless, if the consumer understands the origin or not, classic taglines don’t always impact the same way as they did in previous decades.”

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Other big-name food and beverage brands have also recently been taking a similar approach. The Super Bowl was rife with nostalgia plays and brands have even resonated to bring back bombs. Last year, for example, Pepsi announced a limited re-release of Pepsi Crystal, a clear cola that originally dropped in 1992 and disappeared soon after.

It remains to be seen whether or now the nostalgia angle will successfully resonate among Wendy’s fanbase.“It’s only ‘nostalgia’ if you actually remember the wonderfully successful 1984 campaign itself; otherwise, it’s recycling an amazingly powerful and differentiating campaign that will actually be new to generations of consumers,” says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of research consultancy Brand Keys. “So dress it up as they will, it’s a homage to a positioning that became viral - way before viral was a good thing."

The likelihood of success for the latest iteration of “Where’s the Beef?” is further hindered by the fact that the slogan has already been redeployed on multiple occasions, according to Jon Evans, Chief customer officer at System1. “Wendy’s has returned to ‘Where’s the Beef?’ a few times already, without sticking to it,” he says. "It’s like a band constantly doing farewell tours and reunions – after a while, it stops being special. If you keep switching taglines, you’ll get no consistency benefit, so one-off returns … aren’t always a great idea.”

Still, Carl Loredo, US chief marketing officer for The Wendy’s Company says this is only the beginning of a fresh reboot with more to come. “When we introduced ‘Where’s the Beef?’ in the 80s, celebrating our fresh, never-frozen square hamburger, it quickly became a part of the culture. All these years later, we still believe people should be asking more for their hamburgers. So, it’s time to revisit the past with a fresh take to remind fans – when you see the square, you taste the difference. We’ve got some things in our marketing playbook to bring the beef to the biggest stages this year.”

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