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    QSRs Shift Focus as Core Demo Struggles With Economic Woes

    Visits by consumers aged 18 to 24 are down about 20 percent.

    NEW YORK -- As its core demographic -- young males -- has been struggling with unemployment and underemployment, quick-service restaurants (QSRs) are changing their strategy.

    Fast-food restaurants like McDonald's, Wendy's, and more recently, Burger King, have been targeting a broader audience in their national advertising, especially TV, in an effort to appeal to as many different people as possible and boost sales, according to a report by Advertising Age.

    "With the economy as it is, marketers are trying to cast a wider net than they have in the past," said Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research at Mintel.

    While the economy has hit every demographic, employment prospects for the younger population seem to be particularly gloomy. For September, men between 20 and 24 years old faced a 15.8-percent unemployment rate, compared with the national average of 9.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    And that may be playing a role in their dining-out habits. In the year ended May 2011, consumers aged 18 to 24, on average, visited 192 restaurants each, down 21.2 percent from 259 average visits in the year ended May 2006 -- a steeper drop than any other age group, Advertising Age reported.

    "It's just dangerous to have too narrow a focus" when it comes to targeting customers, said Dennis Lombardi, executive VP of foodservice strategies at WD Partners.

    Researcher Technomic Inc. found that McDonald's usage is highest among Gen X consumers, which is now the age group most likely to have young families. McDonald's has been using various media, and even updated its Happy Meal and core menu with perceived healthier fare, to appeal to mothers.

    "We pride ourselves on being a food and beverage destination for everyone," a spokeswoman for McDonald's told Advertising Age.

    At Burger King, company executives have put the iconic King to rest for now and the chain is focusing its marketing campaign on its fresh food, as CSNews Online previously reported.

    In addition, a campaign the fast-food chain launched earlier this week follows another of its marketing strategies to put women and children first. Its new BK Crown kids' meals come in boxes that feature wearable cardboard crowns, interactive games and directions to a website where kids can choose a wildlife, environment or education charity to which Burger King will donate one penny from the proceeds of their meal. A breakfast meal that includes oatmeal, apple slices and milk or juice is also available.

    Millennials, however, are not giving up on eating out all together. "They have the highest unemployment rate, but they're still a group of people that want to do what they want to do," said Sara Monnette, director of consumer research at Technomic.

    Instead, the demographic is more likely to say they are purchasing less-expensive items when they dine out -- such as items off a dollar or value menu -- while other generational groups are more likely to say they are cutting out visits to save money, she explained.

    Regardless of the shift in marketing strategy, QSRs are still looking at its core consumer as target audience. "I don't think they'll give up targeting younger people, but I think they're going to make more of an effort to appeal to others as well," Giandelone said.


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