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How Dairy Queen Is Targeting Women

The fast-food chain's newest offer is specifically designed to appeal to 18-34 year-old women


Fast-food chains have traditionally targeted millennials in none-too-subtle ways. At Domino's, customers don't even have to curb their texting habit to order pizza via emoji. Last year at McDonald's, select customers could pay for their Big Macs with a selfie. And at Taco Bell, executives reportedly study millennial slang in an effort to keep up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians, as the case may be).

Dairy Queen has been targeting its marketing efforts toward millennials for years but the company's latest campaign goes after an even more specific demographic: female millennials.

With its new Hardest Working Happy Hour — which includes deals on iced coffees, frappés, and smoothies — the fast-food chain is looking specifically to women.

"Female millennials are incredibly busy — we want to provide her with that pick-me-up."

"Our bullseye target is the mid-millennial female," says Maria Hokanson, VP of U.S. Product and Brand Marketing for Dairy Queen. "Female millennials are incredibly busy, trying to juggle many balls, trying to multi-task — we want to provide her with that pick-me-up to get through the day."

Because cold coffees are most-often consumed in the afternoon hours, says Hokanson, the new beverages are offered at happy hour pricing on weekdays, from 2 until 5 p.m.

The timing is no coincidence. While Americans have historically eaten meals during breakfast, lunch, and dinner times, trends show that more people are eating outside the traditional three day-parts. The quick-service industry helped spur the trend, with Wendy's being one of the first fast-food chains to target diners who are hungry late at night, after traditional dinner hours. Taco Bell's "Fourthmeal" — unveiled in 2006 — quickly followed suit.

Late-night eats are still popular throughout the industry but today, it's the post-lunch, pre-dinner crowd that's getting the bulk of the attention. Happy hour has proven to be an increasingly competitive day-part across all restaurant brands, from Starbucks to Steak-N-Shake. The 2 to 5 p.m. window also happens to coincide with the end of the school day, making it an ideal time to grab a snack at a drive-thru window after picking up the kids.

When the chain first dipped its toes into the beverage market a few years ago, with the launch of its Orange Julius product line, it noticed something interesting. "As we launched smoothies, we undertook buyer reaction studies, and started learning more about this demographic," says Hokanson. "We found that beverages, because of their portability, were continuing to grow in popularity among 18 to 34-year-old women."

Beverages, because of their portability, were continuing to grow in popularity among 18 to 34-year-old women.

Executives also noticed a gap. While the chain benefited from diners interested in grabbing dessert at night — "the post-dinner time frame is our bread-and-butter," says Hokanson — there were fewer coming in for a late afternoon snack. So the chain began researching a product that could draw on the success of the Orange Julius line.

"We determined that there were other [non-smoothie] products we could develop to meet their needs," she says. "The way we reward ourselves has changed over the years and beverages have become a really important component of that. Before the Happy Hour, we really didn't have an afternoon pick-me-up, energy-boosting product line."

Dairy Queen first tested its new coffee drinks in South Bend, Indiana, with a television spot and a buyer reaction study. Overall, says Hokanson, the products proved to be  "a great solve for the busy moms' afternoon pinch."

The female millennial market is a hugely profitable one. According to research from ad agency Barkley, Inc. (which has worked with Dairy Queen in the past), 64 percent of the affluent millennial population — those making more than $100,000 annually — is female.

Yet women millennials remain a largely untapped market, especially among fast-food restaurants, which often use sexualized women and masculine language to market their products.

"It surprises people, but one in five stay-at-home-'moms' is actually a dad," says Jeff Fromm, President of ad agency Barkley (which has worked with Dairy Queen in the past) and the author of Marketing to Millennials. "More and more women are entering fields like healthcare and engineering and many are more affluent that men."

Fromm says that millennials as a whole pose an exciting opportunity for quick-service brands because of their influence. "Millennials are the taste-makers and they're influencing others, like Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers." In other words, they're the ones starting trends, and the other generations are picking it up from there.

64 percent of the affluent millennial population — those making more than $100,000 annually — is female.

"I don't think paying for your coffee via mobile device started with those over the age of 35, but I think you're seeing those over 35 using mobile order now," he says. "You see it with social media, too — women over the age of 35 are now the bulk of Pinterest users, but it was the younger millennials who really made it popular."

Dairy Queen will, of course, be utilizing social media as part of the marketing efforts tied to the Happy Hour. They've also partnered with Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson —  who Hokanson calls a "role model" for the multi-tasking millennial set — and will soon be enlisting a handful of other female millennial influencers: mommy bloggers.

"Statistics show that 84 percent of millennial moms rely on recommendations from trusted peers," says Hokanson. "For them, mom bloggers offer a great way to connect and learn."

As one might expect, DQ's Happy Hour prices are low: iced coffee is $1, and a small frappé or Orange Julius fruit smoothie is $2. Of course, prices could differ store-to-store, as franchisees are free to price items as they see fit. But, as Hokanson notes, the recommended pricing structure doesn't just provide "a great entry point" into a new product line. "The prices are below Starbucks."

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