NEW YORK — A “first, best, only mentality” has helped Inspire Brands and its various quick service restaurant companies come up with campaigns that are both authentic and differentiating, Arby’s chief marketing officer Ellen Rose told the audience at PRovoke Media's North America summit, which took place in New York on Tuesday.

In a discussion on “Inspiring Innovation and Influence in QSR,” sponsored by MSL and moderated by chief strategy officer Shreya Mukherjee, Rose explained that “as children, my sister and I were always asking our mother to take us to fast food restaurants, and that meant Arby’s for a number of reasons, but partly because she thought it was real food.

“That’s our purpose: we want to be that place that can be a better choice.”

Sophie Merven, vice president, brand PR and events for Inspire Brands, shared a similar thought: “These are brands, Arby’s and Baskin-Robbins, that we grew up with. These brands are so ingrained in people’s childhood. People have an affinity for these brands, they were iconic to me growing up and they are iconic today.”

At the same time, as Rose points out, Inspire’s various brands do not have the resources of some of the giant names in the quick service restaurant category. “We don’t have the biggest budget, but there is a sea of sameness out there, and we can stand out by being different. We have a first, best, only mentality when it comes to product development and marketing and PR. It’s the filter we use. If we can’t ground it in these things, we have to go back and think again.”

Adds Merven: “Product innovation matters but from a PR standpoint we have multiple brands and sometimes they come to us with similar ideas and similar products. That’s why the packaging and storytelling is so important. The strength is in finding a way to wrap it up into a unique campaign. We are pushed to be mavericks and come up with something new and exciting and we have the green light to take risks and be controversial.

“There is something to be said about having a leadership team that gives us permission to go out with these crazy ideas.”

As an example, she cites the work her team did on a recent campaign for Jimmy John’s, the sandwich chain that is perhaps the company’s least well-known brands. “We have always been very big on celebrating National Days, and it seems like there’s a National Day for everything. So when Jimmy John’s wanted to do something around 4/20 we decided to take a risk.”

The company came up with a limited time offer around the day celebrated by pot smokers everywhere. “Not a lot of brands outwardly do celebrate 4/20,” says Merven. “We came up with a sandwich called the Munchie Crusher, and then we threw an event in Long Beach, Cal., where we transformed a Jimmy John’s into a sandwich dispensary and partnered with a professional roller, a roller to the stars, called Ranagade, and we created rolling papers for the sandwiches.”

At the same time, Rose says, the zaniness has to be authentic. For Arby’s this means keeping the focus on the meat. “We have centered ourselves around the meat, which can be controversial in itself. But our response is there are plenty of places where people can get other options, it’s not going to be from us. We even created “marrot” which was a meat carrot, to underscore just how serious we are about the meat.”

The understanding that authenticity matters extends to Inspire Brands’ use of influencers. In many cases, there are celebrities who simply love the brands—Patton Oswalt is known for posting photographs of himself at Arby’s, while Ben Affleck is a superfan of Dunkin’ and earlier this year produced, directed and starred in a Super Bowl ad, even going so far as to get Jennifer Lopez involved in the production.

“It’s great that we don’t have to fake anything or force anything,” says Merven. “We don’t have to sit people down and tell them who we are so they can pretend to love our brand.”

But a recent campaign that combined the company’s maverick approach with its insistence of authenticity saw rapper Pusha T join forces with Arby’s to create a “diss track” targeting another QSR’s fish sandwiches.

Says Rose, “We had to ask ourselves about the Pusha T idea, because you don’t necessarily put a rapper together with Arby’s, but it worked because he really wanted to do it, because he had this beef with another player in the industry, and we’re a challenger brand willing to do things that are little bit edgy. His creativity and artistry combined with our fish sandwiches worked because it was real and grounded in something true.”