SONIC's Two Guys: Showing America How To SONIC
In 2011, consumers were still emerging from the recession. Although traditional fast-food restaurants provided relief in the form of dollar menus, speed and convenience, SONIC couldn’t compete. What was called “America’s Drive-In” wasn’t the fastest, cheapest or most convenient option. However, SONIC saw an opportunity to provide a different kind of relief—comic relief. With “The Two Guys” campaign, SONIC served up humor and an endless variety of “craveable” food within a consistent construct. The result: 16 consecutive quarters of growth, a 25% jump in same-store sales and stock prices leaping from $9 to $36 a share (2015 52-week high).
What was the state of the brand’s business and the marketplace or category in which it competes before your effort began and how did it change over time?
In 2011, Americans were still feeling the effects of the recession, with no end in sight. Sixty-seven percent of Americans felt the economy was “getting worse” (Gallup, 2011). President Obama spoke of this period as “the worst since the Great Depression.” Unemployment, at 8.9%, was still at an all-time high, optimism at an all-time low (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). Technically, it was a recession; emotionally, Americans were downright depressed.
QSR became a source of solace with their delivery of fast, cheap and easy food. Category behemoths (McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway) leaned into their strengths; feeding America value deals at prices only they could fulfill, through locations that provided easy, convenient access. They were equally aggressive in competing for attention, spending $2.2 billion in combined media (Kantar).
Undercut, outpaced and outgunned, SONIC simply couldn’t compete on these terms. After three straight years of declining sales (2008–2010) and flat sales in 2011, SONIC felt the pains of the recession right alongside its customers.
Over time, as the country recovered and began to loosen its wallet, the category recovered as well. QSR shouting got louder: competitive spend shot up to $2.5 billion (Kantar). Also, a new breed of competitors started vying for attention. Fast, cheap and easy were exchanged for higher-quality ingredients and limited yet specialized menus. The rise of fast-casual chains like Chipotle and Panera Bread were also threatening the fast-food category. In 2014 alone, fast-casual sales climbed 12.8% to $30 billion annually—nearly double the other restaurant segment’s growth rate (IBID).
What was the strategic communications challenge and how did it change over time? Provide context on the degree of difficulty of this challenge initially and over time and detail the business need the effort was meant to address.
In 2011, SONIC’s communications challenge was clear. Give people compelling reasons to go out of their way for SONIC at a time when fastest, cheapest, and easiest were top of mind.
But how best to do it?
We were nearly always underpriced: in a climate where in which every dollar counted, SONIC’s pricing was no match for the value meals and deals that traditional QSR players offered.
We were not the fastest delivery system: SONIC’s appeal can’t be measured in minutes saved. Inspired by the classic American drive-in and with customization rather than standardization at the heart of its menu, SONIC Drive-Ins offers roller-skating carhops delivering food to people in the comfort of their own cars. SONIC was a different kind of experience, but it wasn’t built for speed.
We didn’t enjoy geographic convenience: SONIC’s footprint paled in comparison to the competition. In 2011, SONIC’s locations comprised were a quarter of McDonald’s. And its drive-in concept required far more real estate than did its competitors, who are able to populate dense, urban environments and city centers. SONIC stores are more likely to be found on city outskirts, along highways or in the suburbs, forcing people to drive farther for a SONIC visit.
We were spending less: adding to an already uphill battle was SONIC’s SOV at 7%, less than half of Burger King’s, at 15%, and under a third of McDonald’s, at 26.7% (Kantar).
The landscape was continuing to evolve. Eventually, the recession faded and consumers regained confidence. The need for fast, cheap and easy gave way to a desire for quality, novelty and experimentation. The steady increase of expendable income allowed people to move away from traditional QSR toward fast-casual options like Panera Bread and Chipotle as well as toward regional specialists like Five Guys and Smashburger. The frappuccino challenged SONIC’s stake in frozen drinks. C-Stores started serving up hot dogs. And everyone started to encroach on the customization offering that was once unique to SONIC.
SONIC had to find a way to redefine the rules of competition and shift the conversation with consumers. It needed to play into its unique strengths rather than lose to competitors on theirs.
Define the audience you were trying to reach.
An astounding 93% of Americans visit QSR every month and SONIC wanted a larger slice of this pie (QSR magazine). SONIC identified a segment of this population who shared its love of adding a twist to the familiar: Food Adventurers. Skewing male, they are 25–49 consumers who aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but who still want to inject some fun into their everyday lives.
As the country picked its way out of recession, more and more people fell into this adventurer mindset. We began to see a growing collective of people craving fun ways to make little bets with food and seeking more than cookie-cutter menu items or experiences.
What was the insight that led to the big idea? How did you get to that insight?
The key to challenging category leaders like McDonald’s and Taco Bell was to play a different game. By 2011, financial relief was no longer the only craving Americans desperately wanted to satisfy. They were emotionally exhausted from the bleak economic outlook and lack of good news. People thirsted for a return to laughter and good times.
No brand was in a better position to deliver just that. SONIC was always a more playful kind of experience: drinks you could order in a million different ways, carhops who roller-skated orders to customers, a drive-in where you could dine in the comfort of your own car. SONIC had never been afraid to differentiate itself as a different kind of QSR with a different kind of sensibility. Now SONIC needed to apply it to the communications.
In a time of stress, why don’t we serve up laughs?
In a time of uncertainty, why don’t we provide consistency?
So we turned to something familiar that would help give the country relief in times of stress: comedy by way of a classic comedy duo.
Historically, SONIC made ads that featured different duos perpetually parked in a car cracking jokes about the food. Ads featured a married couple, two gossipy girlfriends and two best friends, Pete and T.J. We needed a perfect duo that would embody the straight man/the funny man, the stooge/the banana man, a pair that was as classic as Abbott and Costello but as quirky as Seinfeld and Kramer.
There was no better duo than Pete and T.J., two best friends who joked about everything from breakfast toasters to slushes. They were the perfect pair to serve America doses of a “kid-at-heart,” carefree outlook on the world—an insight born from the food and amplified by the ads.
In one sentence, state your big idea.
Lift America’s spirits by making our ads as playful as our food.