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McDonald's Salads Lure Women

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Even with doughnut shops as the current top growth category in the restaurant industry, healthy-for-you products are making inroads with consumers and marketers.

Consumers, who've been bellying up to indulgent products for years, might be finally looking to cut calories. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 64% of Americans are overweight or obese.

Among signs of calorie consciousness:

* Sugared soft drink sales were up less than 1% last year, but bottled water grew 26%, and diet soft drinks were up 3.8%, according to beverage industry newsletter Beverage Digest.

* Snack giant Frito-Lay in April introduced a ''Natural'' line of snacks featuring Tostitos, Cheetos and Lay's chips with up to 60% less saturated fat than the brands' regular varieties.

* A new line of Premium Salads with Newman's Own salad dressings helped McDonald's boost same-store sales 6.3% in May. It's the biggest gain in four years.

McDonald's has been trying to sell salads for more than a decade. At first, they were sold in containers displayed in countertop refrigerators. More recently, the featured offering was McSalad Shakers -- a sort of a salad in a cup.

These are being replaced by the Premium Salads, which are finally getting salad sales traction.

''I've always been disappointed with McDonald's salads,'' says Kay Napier, senior vice president of marketing, who joined McDonald's seven months ago from Procter & Gamble.

No more, says Napier, who says she's been ''like a zealot'' about the new salads because ''good product goes a long way.''

The Premium Salads boast 300 calories or fewer, are made to order and blend iceberg lettuce with more nutritional greens such as spinach, radicchio and arugula. They can be topped with warm chicken -- grilled or crispy -- and offer a choice of four Newman's Own dressing flavors.

The new salads and the ads that promote them have been designed to appeal to health-conscious women, who had been avoiding McDonald's. With a goal to get more women through the doors, TV buying for the ads has focused on shows appealing to women.

''A lot of women were still coming to McDonald's and eating but weren't satisfied with the food offerings, or they were coming and buying food for their kids and not buying food for themselves,'' Napier says.

Now, they are anteing up $3.99 for salads, which are boosting sales of other products, too, helping to revive the chain's growth. Happy Meals sales are the strongest they've been in two years, and grilled chicken sandwiches are up 25% since the salads launched, Napier says.

Results of Ad Track, USA TODAY's weekly consumer poll, show the salad ads are getting through to their target.

One ad, by Leo Burnett, Chicago, shows a mom and kids in a van on a highway. The kids ask to stop each time they pass a McDonald's billboard, but only when the mom sees a billboard for the salads does she agree to stop. Two other ads, by DDB, Chicago, show a cross section of women who are yoga enthusiasts, bikers, stay-at-home moms and plumbers. The pitch: ''New McDonald's Premium Salads. They're surprising. Like you.''

About 13% of women familiar with the campaign like the ads ''a lot.'' Though the figure is below the Ad Track average of 21% for the top rating, another 37% like the ads ''somewhat.'' Only 9% ''dislike'' the ads vs. the Ad Track average of 13%.

Not surprisingly, the ads, which are clearly not aimed at men, did not score well with them. Just 4% of men like them ''a lot.''

''It's all about building the business,'' Napier says. ''Likability is a factor, but it's not a critical factor. We know the ads resonate with women, and the sales are unbelievable.''

The next round of salad ads will get tweaked to fit the company's just-announced global ad strategy. On Wednesday, McDonald's unveiled ''I'm lovin' it'' as the brand message around which all its marketing worldwide will be built.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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