DUBLIN, OHIO — “March Madness” was set to tip off, and so was a promotional campaign for a breakfast launch from The Wendy’s Co. The Dublin-based fast-food chain had planned to advertise during the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s basketball tournament last March. Sampling events were scheduled around the country as well, said Carl Loredo, US chief marketing officer.

Then COVID-19 hit. The basketball tournament was canceled. Wendy’s had to change its game plan.

“That kind of all went out the window with COVID,” Mr. Loredo said in a Jan. 27 virtual event. “We were faced with: How do we do this differently? What do we need to do to drive awareness? How do we get trial?”

Wendy’s advertised around gaming events and on cell phones. Drive-thru options and the quality of items like the Breakfast Baconator and the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit helped breakfast sales surge, too. Breakfast accounted for 8% of total US sales for Wendy’s in the second quarter ended June 28, 2020. Consumer awareness that Wendy’s offers breakfast hovered at 50% in the quarter.

“We came into the morning daypart as an underdog, and we launched it in the midst of COVID, and yet here we are less than a year into it, and we’re matching competitors who have been in the (breakfast) market for 50 years,” Mr. Loredo said.

Wendy’s paid attention to social media to figure out how to reach consumers, Mr. Loredo said. After COVID-19 hit, consumers were binge-watching TV shows, spending time on handheld devices and showing an interest in gaming.

“This huge influx of folks was watching gaming, getting involved in gaming,” Mr. Loredo said. “Clearly, the work we’ve done in Fortnite set us up to be successful in the world of gaming.”

He said Wendy’s advertised around Animal Crossing and Mario Kart as well. Advertising during virtual concerts and partnering with Grubhub were other strategies taken because of COVID-19. Cell phone ads were timed around when consumers went to bed and when they woke up.

“Serving up an offer for a Breakfast Baconator, what better way to get your morning started or to wrap up your evening and get that into your dream state for the next day, too,” Mr. Loredo said.

For its breakfast items, Wendy’s executives wanted flavors that “scream” breakfast, said John Li, vice president of culinary innovation. He gave honey butter as an example. Generation X consumers tend to order the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit the most, he added.

The Breakfast Baconator is favored mostly by males of the ages 18 to 35. Millennials tend to order the Frosty-cino, a cold-brew coffee with either chocolate or vanilla Frosty cream served over ice.

Consumers older than age 55 are more likely to order the Bacon, Egg and Swiss Croissant.

“That’s a generation that grew up eating a traditional Sunday bunch,” Mr. Li said.

Mr. Loredo said Wendy’s customers are ordering breakfast later in the morning because of COVID-19 and digital and mobile ordering is up as well.

“You had to really think about everything from messaging to how we were working in the restaurants and then ultimately the way that we were getting food to consumers,” he said. “From where we were at this time a year ago, I have to admit that pretty much everything has changed, but in many ways it’s changed for the better.”