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Posted: March 01, 2012

State of the state: Marketing

Geography, demographics make Denver a hotspot for new product trials

Maria Martin

Leaf through any cookbook and the words "mix well" are pretty commonplace.

A good mix is exactly what marketing and brand-development professionals look for when testing new food products and restaurant items.

Tera Haselden with Philosophy Communication says Denver’s diversity makes it a popular spot for those in the restaurant business.

"We’re a real melting pot," says Haselden, whose marketing and public relations firm was enlisted by TGI Friday’s to help launch the new menu in the Denver market. "Not many people around here are originally from Denver."

Meaning, she explains, that the transplants from the South, the Midwest and both coasts give the Friday’s team a good grasp of whether their products will succeed across the United States.

Steven Hartley can point to a couple other home-team advantages for Denver.

The professor of marketing at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business points out that the latest information from the census reveals we’re surprisingly average along the Front Range.

"You’re looking for a representative sample when testing a new product, like a menu item at a restaurant," Hartley says. "Our age distribution is slightly younger, and our income a bit higher, but we don’t skew significantly on many things."

That makes the area a hit for Friday’s, along with other companies, like Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, that have tested products along the Front Range. Haselden also points to a handful of popular national chains, like Smashburger and Quiznos, with roots in Colorado.

But lest the good people of Colorado begin to feel uncomfortably common, Hartley has some good news.

"We’re a healthy market, so we’ll be of interest to companies testing specific products that might appeal to athletic people, for instance," he says.

Thus, when Mars Chocolate unveiled the nutritious goodnessKnows snack squares in 2010, fitness mecca Boulder became an ideal place to test the product.

And Ricky Richardson, chief operating officer of TGI Friday’s, was very cognizant of Denver’s healthy attitudes when the company tested menu items.

"We don’t stress so much low-calorie or low-fat items," Richardson said of the testing period in the seven Friday’s locations along the Front Range. "Our menu strategy introduced fresh, bold, more contemporary items."

The freshness and high quality of ingredients are reflected in popular items like Ahi Tuna with Avocado Crisps, a new hummus appetizer, and Sizzling Chimichurri. Denver’s sophisticated audience, he said, responded favorably to the bold flavors and fresh ingredients.

"We don’t put it out there and say, ‘It’s better for you,’ but it’s not processed food. It’s subtle, but it is healthier, and knowledgeable consumers appreciate it."

What they didn’t appreciate, he said, was the attempt the restaurant chain made to streamline the menu.

"Our guests are passionate about the menu," he said. "They wanted their fried mozzarella back, as well as some of the items on the Jack Daniels grill that we tried to take out."

Also a plus in Denver, Richardson says, is that it’s somewhat isolated from other large cities, but it’s a substantial enough market for media, so there’s opportunity to advertise in print, radio and on television.

That isolation may be important, DU’s Hartley says, because of the "buzz" factor.

"You don’t want that test market influenced by noise," he says. "It used to be that you wanted to hide what you were putting out there from your competitors, but with social media, that’s no longer an option."

What might be a factor, he says, is the consistency that comes with an isolated market. With only seven Friday’s along the Front Range, each restaurant offered the menu with test items. In larger metropolitan areas, having only a few of the restaurants in the chain testing items might be problematic.

"If you’ve tried something at your favorite (chain) restaurant in the San Francisco area and then go to another one a few days later that’s less than an hour away, you might be upset to find that your new favorite item isn’t on the menu."

That’s a problem they didn’t face in Denver, says Richardson, adding that the testing period in Colorado, which stretched from 2010 to 2011, was much longer than the restaurant’s usual three-month time frame.

"Denver is the test ground for the future of Friday’s nationally and internationally," says Richardson of the chain, which has more than 900 restaurants in the United States and 60 international markets. "It really is helping to shape what Friday’s will be in the future."

Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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