Why Sonic drove away from in-car commercials for its latest campaign

    Sonic Drive-In today (Sept. 26) launched a new advertising campaign, “Mmm. Sonic,” that offers an imaginative, dreamlike take on the quick-service restaurant’s food. In the first spot, “Chophouse,” a despondent dad sits in the bleachers at his child’s football game before the camera zooms through his eye into a fantasy where he’d rather be — a lodge serving the brand’s limited-time Chophouse Cheeseburger — before zooming out to reveal him eating the burger. The ad is set to a folksy, banjo-heavy jingle.

    The new effort follows “This Is How We Sonic,” which launched in February 2020 and swapped the brand’s long-running, improv comedy-driven “Two Guys” creative with spots featuring real Sonic customers. The last campaign debuted just weeks before coronavirus overtook the U.S., and its focus on families enjoying Sonic in the car was coincidentally in-line with new pandemic-spurred consumer behaviors.

    After being acquired by Inspire Brands in 2018, Sonic worked, like its sister brands, to codify its brand positioning. The result was a focus on the concepts “craving,” “oasis” and “delight.” The new campaign allows the brand to pivot between those concepts to better engage with consumers who have returned to pre-pandemic activities in earnest.

    “Having lived through the last couple of years, we feel like it’s time to tell more of the ‘craving’ side of the story with the ‘oasis’ as the support,” CMO Lori Abou Habib told Marketing Dive.

    “That was really the impetus behind the campaign: how do we tell more of the story about variety and innovation [of the food] that is truly at the heart of what makes Sonic special, where we take a ton of pride and where we focus a ton of our resources?” Habib said. 

    Shifting appetites 

    “Mmm. Sonic” was created in partnership with agency of record Mother Los Angeles, which also crafted “This Is How We Sonic.” It is running across national TV, streaming platforms such as Hulu, Paramount+, Tubi and HBO Max, digital online video and display, social, streaming audio and local TV and radio.

    Future spots feature daydreams of white-glove service in a steakhouse and a grandmother’s cookie-filled ’50s kitchen. Habib also teased elements that revolve around the spots’ lyrical component and tie into how music is key to the in-car experience.

    As Sonic has grown into new markets over the last two years, it has learned that its unique, drive-in concept isn’t intuitive to everyone. While some “Mmm. Sonic” ads and the campaign’s visuals highlight a new car-side delivery service, the brand hopes its food-focused fantasies serve as “incremental connection points” that help demystify the dining experience, Habib explained.

    “It’s about being able to tell some of those stories that I think transcend some of the brand history and [identity] as a drive-in because, first and foremost, we are a food brand,” she said.

    Along with adjusting Sonic’s tenor after two-plus years shaped by the pandemic, “Mmm. Sonic” is the first new effort from the chain since parent company Inspire Brands tapped Publicis Groupe as its media agency of record, with agencies Zenith and Digitas overseeing a bespoke unit called Inspired Media Engine.

    “From a marketing perspective, where we’ve been able to organize the fastest is really around this platform and focusing on how we can combine our collective purchasing power,” Habib said of the Publicis deal.

    While the company’s brands are just scratching the surface of what the bespoke media agency provides and learning how to move their collective agenda forward, Habib said that Sonic has already benefited from the arrangement.

    “It’s definitely shifted some of the appetite and the flexibility that we’ve had as an individual brand,” she explained. “Our purchasing power has gone a lot further and we just have a lot more flexibility than we would have had and as a standalone [brand].”


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