Olive Garden Pits North Against South (in Italian Food, That Is)

Northern Tour of Italy Courtesy Olive Garden

In the latest marketing-fueled rivalry that you never wanted to take sides in—we’re only just recovering from all the skirmishing over Team Edward or Team Jacob—restaurant chain Olive Garden is now asking diners to take a stand for Northern or Southern Italian cuisine.

In a new campaign that runs through Jan. 2, dishes from “Team North” or “Team South” are on Olive Garden menus for a limited time, and diners can vote to decide which stay on. So far, Team North is winning, but either way, it’s a vote for Team Olive Garden—not only does the restaurant get to engage with customers this way, it also gets their e-mail addresses, which are requested during voting. That’s handy for any marketer. And users can make additional votes by linking to their social media accounts.

OK, first, to be clear, by Northern Italian cuisine, Olive Garden means a sampling plate with asiago tortelloni, chicken Lombardy, and fettuccine with creamy parmesan portobello sauce. For Southern Italian, it’s serving a plate with mezzaluna ravioli, spicy pesto shrimp, and bucatini pasta with spicy tomato bacon sauce.

Southern Tour of Italy
Courtesy Olive Garden

“This is the first time we’ve crowdsourced in this way,” said spokesman Justin Sikora in an e-mail. “We are constantly listening to our guests when it comes to adding new items to our menu.”

Other food companies have used similar techniques to prepare for new product launches. Lay’s “Do Us a Flavor” contests, for example, ask consumers to vote for the next Lay’s flavor (wasabi ginger won this year). Soda makers Coca-Cola and Pepsi have new machines that let people mix their own beverage combos, allowing them to identify popular combos.

Olive Garden’s same-store sales have been down for the last five quarters, although owner Darden Restaurants tried to assure investors that things were getting getter by reporting a 0.6 percent rise in comparable sales in September. But Darden’s entire board nonetheless was replaced in a shareholder vote last month, and then-Chief Executive Clarence Otis stepped down earlier than expected.
 
With the board wars behind it, Olive Garden is now starting a North-South rivalry among its customers. Oh, when will the fighting end?

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