Golden Corral revamps its pitch to stay relevant

The 47-year-old buffet chain is trying different payment models and airing a bold new ad campaign in a bid to keep its image fresh.
golden corral
Photograph: Shutterstock

The 15-second spot jackrabbits open with a shout that could pull the comatose back into consciousness: “Different folks have different strokes,” booms a voice whose bearer might have brushed a third rail. And then the energy shifts—decidedly upward.

Two or three seconds into the new wave-esque carousel of images—probably around the head shot of the pink-haired woman, or maybe the one of a youngster missing a pie slice-shaped chunk of his natural—even the still comatose would get that this isn’t an ad for grandpa’s favorite car company. The real airer, Golden Corral, is betting viewers will be just as quick to grasp it’s no longer the buffet chain grandma loved to hit after a Sunday drive.

The ad spot is part of a rejuvenation effort the venerable chain is undertaking to stay relevant to its current clientele while strengthening its pitch to that prime target of marketers, the millennial generation. A new restaurant design will be in 100 stores by year’s end, and the family-owned brand is experimenting with such updates as dropping its pay-one-price model. Customers of the test unit also no longer pay when they enter, but rather at their table. They can choose from three buffet options: soup and salad only; a single trip to the food bar; or unlimited trips, as Golden Corral has traditionally offered for a one-size-fits-all price of $13.95.

The 47-year-old chain is also addressing the boom in demand for off-premise options with Golden Corral to Go, a line consisting of “our core favorites to go, in either individual or family portions,” says Tim Schroder, SVP of marketing for the 484-unit brand. Customers can order the items off the internet and pick them up already packaged for carryout.

The biggest off-premise play for the chain, Schroder continues, is catering. “Everyone else thinks in terms of plates per person,” he says. “We specialize in pans of food. We know how to feed big groups, [so] you’re going to see us get more aggressive with catering.”

Meanwhile, the chain’s menu development effort has never been more robust, says Schroder.

“This isn’t your grandma’s Golden Corral anymore,” he says.

Schroder was an architect of the new ad, one of six executions of a new marketing campaign.

The brand had a checklist of objectives, chief among them to stand out from the restaurant-advertising din and make an emotional connection.

“Everybody’s doing the same thing—food shots with music,” he says. Everyone except Golden Corral; the brand had never used music in its ads before.

The new campaign was the survivor of what started as eight possible approaches. “We whittled that down to the three that had the most legs and could break through the clutter,” says Schroder.

The final contenders were then presented to two different consumer populations. One group of participants was drawn from the chain’s frequent guest program. The others were random consumers who might or might not be Golden Corral customers, Schroder explains.

“We didn’t want to go to our usual group of executives—our board members,” he continues. “We’re not necessarily our core customers. We decided, ‘Hey, let’s ask our core customers what they think,” along with consumers who might be added to that constituency.

“It skews younger, and that’s not a bad thing for us,” Schroder says.

Few would dispute that the spot’s musical opener is an ear-grabber. It’s a snippet of an obscure song—"Diff'rent Strokes for Diff’rent Folks”—by an even more obscure R&B group from the 1960s, Alvin Cash & The Registers.

The commercial includes a number of food shots, but styled to counter the impression that Golden Corral is all about food volume. Shown is a single stalk of broccoli on an otherwise empty white plate. Another shot features a lone piece of salmon.

“Everyone thinks you have to load up your plate when you go to Golden Corral. That’s a misconception,” says Schroder.

For $13.95, a guest can eat no differently than they would at a casual restaurant where guests pay $16.95 or more a head, he says, stressing that there’s just more variety available at that price.

The misconception is also a target of the new pricing model being tested in Indiana. The unit that reopened on Feb. 27 features updated exterior and interiors, and a number of operational tweaks. The dining area includes a wider variety of seating options—deuces as well as tables for families—and such upscale touches as a fireplace. The buffet, still the heart of a Golden Corral, was also reconfigured.

Schroder would not divulge how sales have been affected by the new TV ad and its social media complements, but says he’s pleased.

“What we really wanted to develop a campaign that would convey a distinct brand identity for the future,” he says. “We thought it was time to go bold and do something really different.

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