A&W and White Spot beefed up their brands this year with some smart changes

Five years ago, with sales far from sizzling, A&W Food Services of Canada Inc. set out to boost its brand. The plan, according to chairman and CEO Paul Hollands: offer younger, food-savvy consumers something they’d never expect from a fast-food chain. “We looked at a whole bunch of things and tried to figure out what we could deliver,’’ Hollands recalls at A&W’s North Vancouver headquarters. “The first piece of that was beef.’’

Since September 2013, A&W has sourced all of its beef from livestock raised without growth hormones or steroids. It’s still the only nationwide quick-service restaurant operator to make the switch, and sales from its locations open for at least two years have climbed for 12 consecutive quarters. To help spread the word, the company recruited Tom Newitt from Richmond-based Nature’s Path Foods Inc. as its senior director of marketing and brand communications. It also spent big on advertising, most notably a ubiquitous campaign by Vancouver’s Rethink Communications featuring actor Allen Lulu as a kindly store manager.

These efforts may help explain why A&W has risen from 20th to 17th in our Most Influential Brands ranking. It climbs the chart with another burger purveyor, local fixture White Spot, which gains four places to finish 12th. “They’ve each managed to carve out a nice segment based on moving away from the old theme of ‘We’re just a burger joint,’’’ says Lindsay Meredith, professor emeritus of marketing at Simon Fraser University.

A&W, which has some 190 restaurants in B.C., expanded its so-called better ingredients initiative to include antibiotic-free poultry and pork, and eggs from chickens fed a vegetarian diet. This move reinforced the message that its brand “stands for trust and transparency,” says Brian Saul, co-founder and creative director of Fluid Creative, a Vancouver-based agency specializing in natural brands.

“We’ve all grown up thinking that fast food is highly processed garbage,’’ Saul notes. “To be a fast-food restaurant that has antibiotic-free chicken or steroid-free beef is exceeding expectations in that category.’’

white spot vs AWWhite Spot (left); A&W (right)

Founded almost 90 years ago by Vancouverite Nat Bailey, White Spot has faced its own challenges along the way, including a 1985 botulism outbreak and later questions about whether its brand was growing as stale as a day-old Legendary burger. Like A&W, the company has taken steps to keep pace with changing consumer tastes—while staying true to its humble B.C. roots. “White Spot’s positioning is very down-to-earth,’’ says SFU’s Meredith. “They’re serving the average person nothing too fancy, just good down-home nutrition.’’

Feel free to hold the Triple O sauce, though. Over the past decade at its more than 60 full-service casual restaurants throughout the province, White Spot has remodelled and updated dining rooms and improved kitchen training by joining the Red Seal certification program.

In 2015, in a bid to strengthen its relationship with millennials, it revamped its menu by introducing 10 new dishes to an ever-changing lineup. “We used to have liver and onions on our menu,’’ says Warren Erhart, president and CEO of privately held White Spot Hospitality. “Today we don’t sell liver, but we sell tons of quinoa, B.C. wines and gluten-free buns.”

For White Spot, being a B.C. mainstay is a strength and a potential worry. Its strong brand and dominant presence have stopped Swiss Chalet and other Eastern Canadian peers from establishing a big footprint in B.C., says Patrick Parker, president of P.E. Parker & Associates Inc., a Vancouver-based marketing and management consultancy. The rub? “White Spot, because of its high level of B.C. focus, needs to ensure that it adds value as it grows,’’ maintains Parker, a former general manager with the company.

A&W shouldn’t take its current success for granted either. “Customers vote with their wallets for winning companies that are energetic, growing and innovative,’’ Parker says. “If, five years from now, A&W is still almost exclusively focused on burgers and no hormones, it’ll be in a real pickle.”