Can Arby's beat Subway at its own game?

The struggling chain tries to erase its 'fast food' image.

By Jonathan Berr Oct 1, 2012 11:56AM
Image, Philly Cheese Steak, copyright FoodCollection, SuperStock, SuperStockArby's, which Wendy's (WEN) sold last year to Roark Capital Group for $430 million, is trying to reboot its brand. Through its new advertising campaign -- "Slicing Up the Truth About Freshness" -- the chain hopes to reposition itself as a purveyor of fresh rather than fast food. 

That's not going to be an easy sell, because it's been tried before.

Ever since it was founded, in 1964, Arby's has prided itself on offering a different sort of fast food -- namely, roast beef sandwiches, which are really yummy. The company, though, is proud that it was the first fast-food chain to offer a "complete light menu" in 1991. 

Ten years later, the company expanded its healthier offerings and introduced the Market Fresh line of sandwiches and salads. In 2008, Wendy's agreed to be acquired by Nelson Pelz's Triac, which controlled Arby's. The company took the Wendy's name, and the Arby's chain languished for years. The company tried pushing the freshness of its food again last year with its "Good Mood Food" campaign, but the message didn't stick.

"The fact that Arby's has been freshly slicing meats in every restaurant for nearly 50 years is something we're extremely proud of, and it's something not all restaurant chains can say they do for their customers," said Russ Klein, the chief marketing officer of Arby's Restaurant Group.

One chain that can make that claim is Subway, which tops the list of Zagat's favorite mega-fast-food chains. Subway has effectively branded itself as a purveyor of healthful food, though some of its menu items are better choices than others. McDonald's (MCD) is also marketing its healthier fare, as is Burger King (BKW), all spurred on by growing public concern about obesity, particularly among children.

Whether Arby's, which has more than 3,500 locations, can differentiate itself from much larger rivals Burger King (12,500) McDonald's (33,500) and Subway (37,776) remains to be seen.

As Bloomberg News noted, Arby's new campaign targets diners who eat out about 50 times a month but dine at the chain only about six times during that period. They represent 20% of Arby's customers and account for two-thirds of its total transactions. Winning them over may not be easy.

So far, at least, fast-food fans don't appear to be overly impressed with Arby's. For instance, Brand Eating found the Arby's Turkey Classic to be "too plain to be a good vehicle for turkey."

All the marketing campaigns won't mean squat if people don't like the food.

Jonathan Berr is long McDonald's. Follow him on Twitter@jdberr.

Oct 2, 2012 10:06AM
"Arby's new campaign targets diners who eat out about 50 times a month but dine at the chain only about six times during that period"

Some people dine out 50 times a month?!?

No wonder America is so fat.
Oct 1, 2012 3:20PM
They are more expensive than other fast food chains.  If that isn't fixed in this economy they will continue to drop.
Oct 1, 2012 5:11PM
i like their food but it's too expensive
Oct 1, 2012 2:26PM

Arby's is just too expensive. For the same $ I can go to a local place and get better food and more choices.

Oct 1, 2012 4:55PM

Arby's is too expensive.  For the same money I can go to a buffet restaurant and get soup, salad, sea food(clams, shrimp, crabs, oyster, fish), spar ribs, sushies, pizza, fries.....

Oct 1, 2012 4:32PM
I gave up on Arby's some time ago.  Through the recession they have continued to raise prices and reduce portion size as if we were too stupid to notice.  Their arrogance will be their undoing.
Oct 1, 2012 4:18PM

even though I love Arby's a meal "deal" of their Market Fresh Sandwiches run you close to $10 for a sandwich, fries and a soda. that's a little much for this economy for a daily meal... at least for many of us.

Oct 1, 2012 9:41PM
good mood food failed because it was annoying
Oct 1, 2012 6:22PM
Since when does Subway fresh slice their meat?  Every single one I have visited, their meat came in a package pre-sliced.
Oct 1, 2012 4:17PM
Arby's food is great, the prices suck, and I hated the "Good Mood Food" campaign.
Oct 2, 2012 9:43AM
I like the Market Fresh sandwiches. I just can't justify the ridiculous price of the combo meal. And the fresh sliced roast beef??? Not hardly. That is reconstituted beef product. It is roasted. It is beef. But it is not roast beef.
Oct 2, 2012 12:46PM
Oct 1, 2012 9:11PM
I like Arby"s for the Bar B Q Beef sandwich, which made them famous. The problem is they can"t pick a menu and stick with it. One minute they have it, the next they don't make it any more. Very frustrating. That's what you get when you let the fickle bean counters run the show. You should stick with what got you here and add to that. You can't be everything to everybody.
Oct 2, 2012 10:58AM

it isn't hat they don't like the food it's that the food is not price friendly. McDonalds and Burger King are

cheaper when feeding a whole family. 

Arby's does not have competitive prices.  Subway is doing better than it's competitor Quizno's for that reason.  If Arby's wants to be able to compete with Subway, their prices will have to come down.
Oct 2, 2012 12:29AM

  I love Arby's, and I have been a faithful customer for many years.  Lean roast beef instead of high fat burgers makes a great choice...along with many other good choices.   As far as fast food goes, only Subway and Arby's have long featured healthier food compared to burgers.



Oct 1, 2012 4:18PM
Who eats out 50 times a month?  I'd be a 500 pound cow if I did that!
Oct 1, 2012 7:12PM
Subway used to offer a somewhat decent Sub with an adequate amount of meat.  Since they began the "$5.00 Footlong" campaign, you need an electron microscope to find the meat.  It's not a deal if your paying five bucks for a 12" piece of bread filled with lettuce.  I hope Arby's is successful with their new marketing plan.
Oct 2, 2012 12:14PM
PRICE is the main reason I don't eat at ARBY's...........there is NO VALUE, and most of the time the food is cold (although its claimed to be prepared "fresh".
Oct 1, 2012 3:04PM
I love Arby's, but there Market Fresh line of sandwiches are anything but healthy!  Go to their website and check out the calorie and fat count on any of them.  Most tip the scales at over 800 calories!  Their healthiest choice by far, is their good old, regular roast beef sandwich, and it is delish! 
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