Can Project Gold Hamburger Save Wendy’s?

Can Wendy's become relevant again? The company, squeezed from the bottom by big-volume competitor McDonald's and from the top by the explosion of better burger chains such as Smashburger, Five Guys, and In-N-Out, is betting its future on a new burger called Dave's Hot 'N Juicy, named after (now deceased) restaurant founder Dave Thomas.

Breathless coverage at USA Today details the company's two-and-a-half-year (!) secret project to build a better burger, known within the company as Project Gold Hamburger (sounds like one of Ian Fleming's lesser titles):

"The burger—with extra cheese, a thicker beef patty, a buttered bun, and hold the mustard, among other changes—will be served in restaurants starting Monday. ... In the end, Wendy's changed everything but the ketchup. They switched to whole-fat mayonnaise, cut out the mustard, and cut down on the pickles and onions, all to emphasize the flavor of the beef. They also started storing the cheese at higher temperatures so it would melt better, a change that required federal approval."

Project Gold Hamburger schemers considered changing the lettuce, but decided to keep iceberg for its crunch. Thicker tomato slices were tested, but since that would require franchisees to invest in new slicing equipment, that was ultimately scrapped.

Whether the burger can stand shoulder to shoulder with a Five Guys burger or a Double-Double remains to be seen. But if there's a missed opportunity in this campaign, it's that Wendy's is spurning the extreme, self-flagellating, attention-getting, and ultimately rip-roaringly successful style of Domino's brand reinvention, instead going with a much more modest statement about the reason for the overhaul:

"'Our food was already good,' said Denny Lynch, a Wendy's spokesman. 'We wanted it to be better. Isn't that what long-term brands do? They reinvent themselves.'"

The Domino's theory was that if you're going to win people over, you've gotta be frank. The Wendy's theory seems to be that an incremental change to the menu will do the trick. There may be room in this wide world for both theories to be correct, and the next couple rounds of quarterlies will tell us for sure if that's the case.

Image source: Flickr member El Gran Dee under Creative Commons