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Boston Pizza CEO Mark Pacinda has led the firm's growth as a national chain. Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and MailKevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Boston Pizza wants you to take your eye off the pie.

The Canadian restaurant chain has been staring down a marketing problem in recent years. The restaurants are split in two, with a family-style dining room as well as a sports bar. But especially in parts of the country where the brand awareness is not as developed as in Western Canada where it was founded, customers don't associate it with chicken wings, nachos or that frothy profit driver, beer.

That's a problem for a sports bar at playoff time.

On Monday, the company is kicking off the second round of an advertising campaign that began last year, designed to make men think of Boston Pizza as a destination for watching the game with friends.

Boston Pizza is facing a problem that many other food service companies grapple with: deeply known for a single product, they struggle to broaden their marketing message to widen their pool of potential customers.

Last year's effort, an 8-week TV buy with online elements that also aired during the NHL playoffs, introduced a fake wing critic, Carl Carlson, President of the Flatties & Drummies Association. He pontificated on the "nibs" and "nubs" of each wing. Boston Pizza's franchises had reported complaints that its wings were sub-par, and so the chain revamped the menu, making wings 20 to 25 per cent larger and expanding what in company-speak is referred to as the "sauce profile."

The target for the 2011 campaign was to boost wing sales by 50 per cent compared to April and May of 2010; they went up 160.2 per cent after the campaign began and continued to rise, and many locations ran out of the product. The brand's Facebook page attracted more than 14,000 new fans during the campaign. Wing sales have held steady at roughly double what they were before last year's marketing push, according to Boston Pizza.

The wing critic was such a popular character that a phrase he used in the ads – "Knock me down and call me Susan," – soon began popping up in other contexts and being used in conversation. In January, the effort also netted a Cassies advertising award for Boston Pizza and its agency, Taxi Toronto.

"When guys were deciding where they're going to go out and watch the game, we were not on the radar, because of the wings," said Steve Silverstone, executive vice-president of marketing for Boston Pizza. "…We want to continue the momentum we started."

Boston Pizza's entire marketing strategy has steered toward a male target, in fact. Its " Finger Cooking" campaign, which promotes its takeout service, speaks to men almost exclusively, a departure in the category that leans toward busy moms feeding their families.

"When we took on the account, there was sameness in the family restaurant category – it was all aspirational-dinner-party," said Darren Clarke, executive creative director at Taxi. "We made a conscious effort to skew more male."

But those male customers didn't just drive the sports bar business: Mr. Silverstone notes that chicken wing sales also increased in the dining room side of the restaurant in the wake of the campaign, where there is a larger mix of families as well. Boston Pizza Royalties Income Fund saw same-store sales growth of roughly 5 per cent in 2011, according to financial statements. The company attributed that growth to higher take-out and delivery orders and the expanded chicken wing sales, both driven by the national radio, television and online campaigns.

And it is continuing to push its wings to a male target demographic. A new menu item – nachos topped with chicken wings – is either a monstrosity or pure genius, depending on your point of view (and likely whether you fall into that target.) The new campaign introduces yet another fictional character, a "food innovator" who apparently invented seedless watermelons, pigs in a blanket, and is now introducing all-meat wings (made with boneless meat) for Boston Pizza. The character is a cross of Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Steve Jobs, Mr. Clarke said. He presents the wings to an adoring following on a stage complete with dancing girls and pyrotechnics.

"We modelled it on a kind of iPhone, Apple hype kind of product but the absurdity that this is for a chicken wing," Mr. Clarke said.

"We're focusing on products that our target is looking for," Mr. Silverstone said.