After watching its bigger rival McDonald'stry to woo mothers and grab a share of the family budget, Burger Kingis launching a new marketing and promotional campaign targeted to moms.
"A large part of our customer base is parents with children," said Russ Klein, president of global strategy, marketing and innovation. "As a parent, the challenge is always trying to get the kinds of things you want to but have some dimension of fun."
The centerpiece of the effort, Klein said, is a new kids meal featuring a four-ounce serving of Kraft macaroni and cheese, lowfat milk and the company's "Fresh Apple Fries", which are uncooked apple slices shaped like french fries and served with low-fat caramel dipping sauce. The meal will go on sale Monday for $3.49 and will be a permanent fixture on Burger King's menu.
"We are trying step by step to make moves like this where we can innovate with food that's still fun, still a treat, still has that value, but also has the nutritionally balanced objectives," Klein told CNBC (See video for full interview).
The launch will be followed by an in-restaurant merchandising and television ad campaign, with the first commercial airing July 7. That spot will introduce "Little King" meant to be the masked king's young son.
The company will be offering free samples of its apple fries through July in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Houston. Burger King will also give away samples at Jonas Brothers concert tour sites. Burger King is an official sponsor of the group's "Burning Up Tour" and will be offering some free tickets to the concerts.
Klein declined to specify the value of the advertising and marketing effort, saying only that the company will spend millions "supporting this vehicle."
Burger King certainly isn't the first fast food restaurant to try to convince moms to listen to the pleas in the backseat for fast food. McDonald's launched a public relations campaign targeted to mothers last year in a bid to neutralize criticism that the company's food is a contributor to childhood obesity.
The McDonald's approach included adding a bevy of healthier menu items to its menu meant to entice both kids and parents, including "Apple Dippers" — pre-cut slices of apples similar to the new Burger King version. The chain also started a "mom's quality correspondence" campaign in which six mothers got a behind-the-scenes look at how the chain operates. The moms write about their experience on the company's Web site.
Zack's Investment Research senior analyst Anne Northrup said McDonald's has been "a trailblazer" in changing the perception that fast food is an indulgence that will likely lead to gaining a few extra pounds.
But convincing parents to correlate healthy eating with the home of the Whopper may not so be easy, particularly since Burger King has been lambasted by critics for not switching to trans-fat free oil as fast as some of its competitors. The chain has committed to making the switch in all of its restaurants by the end of the year. Wendy's, meanwhile, cut out trans fat oil in August 2006.
Northrup said getting parents to take their families to Burger King may also be dependent on the pace of the chain's remodeling campaign. Burger King has been attempting to turn around its sales partly by renovating its restaurants.
Northrup said a large number of the chain's unit are still more than 30 years old.
"That's a key driver of earnings growth in the next few years," she said.
--CNBC.com contributed to this report.