Brandtique: Red Robin

In January, California-based fast-food chain El Pollo Loco sought to use the national reach--albeit a diminished one due to faltering ratings--of NBC's "The Apprentice" to convey its major expansion initiative. After a long time peddling grilled chicken on the West Coast, the company had moved to Chicago and all the way to Virginia. And it opted to use Donald Trump to essentially shout out: "Coming to a location near you!"

No, El Pollo Loco didn't go with subtlety--what some say keeps product placement from turning off an audience by avoiding overt commercialism.

Here's how part of it went down:

Trump rides in a car with ELP CEO Steve Carley and asks: "So how's business?" (Yes, believe it, The Donald is riveted by how the new chicken crunchy taco is selling.)

Carley obliges: "Business has been terrific! And not only are we doing well in California, but we're expanding across the country."

Another chain, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers (with about the same number of locations as ELP), went with a similar idea--using a reality show to showcase products and cue the public that "we're ramping up and making our way to a strip mall near you."



As late as 1980, the self-professed "gourmet burger" chain was only in Washington state, where it was founded in the 1940s as a Seattle tavern. It's still not in Florida, the Gulf Coast, most of New England and a swath of the Upper Midwest. Last year, it opened its first South Carolina location; there's only one in Tennessee and seven in New York state. But it has been beefing up in Illinois, North Carolina and elsewhere.

Enter Bravo's "Top Chef: Miami," where Red Robin played a role in the Aug. 15 episode as the basis for a challenge among the would-be Gordon Ramsays (well, hopefully not). The contestants are asked to view the Red Robin menu and prepare their "own unique take" on, or new option for, the Adventuresome burger section.

A close-up of the Red Robin menu is shown, while host Padma Lakshmi calls Red Robin "the restaurant chain specializing in gourmet burgers." Later, a contestant weighs in on how broad Red Robin's menu is, making it tough, he says, to concoct something the chain doesn't already offer--"a pretty extensive menu, and it's hard not to pick some of the things that are on it."

That contestant comes up with a "surf and turf" option, another with a "scallop, shrimp and sea bass ... with sweet chili glaze" delight. Red Robin doesn't deserve one of its own "ultimate margaritas" for creativity. The close-up--the shout-out from the host, probably influencing a contestant's dialogue--is common fare as brand integrations go.

But the strategy is sound on two fronts. An association with a high-end Bravo cooking show popular with its upscale audience could deliver a message that Red Robin isn't a run-of-the-mill burger chain. And, with low-brand recognition in many parts of the country--even where it has a significant presence--the integration could prompt some people to try it if it opens nearby.

For Red Robin, the integration likely gave people something to chew on.

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