BOSTON — Driving innovation for the Wendy’s Co. is a quest to have the cleanest label in the quick-service industry.

“We’re very proud of the fact, if you look at what we typically refer to as clean labels, we have absolutely some of the cleanest labels in the business,” said Emil Brolick, president and chief executive officer, during a March 12 presentation at the RBC Capital Markets Consumer and Retail Conference in Boston. “And we want to keep moving down a path of doing that and get to the point where there’s nothing on any of our labels that came from a chemistry book, that they’re absolutely the cleanest out there.”

However, cost and scale present challenges in sourcing simple-label products.

“Given a brand our size, we have to make sure that you can actually source products in the quantity that we need to have these available, and in some cases, some of these things just are not available in the quantity that we need them. And of course, the cost profile is also very important.”

Wendy's Asian Cashew Chicken Salad

To court the calorie-conscious consumer, the Dublin, Ohio-based fast-food chain recently launched a pair of salads with half the fat and less sodium than the two salads they replaced on the menu. At 380 calories, the Asian Cashew Chicken Salad features roasted edamame, red peppers and spicy roasted cashews, plus grilled chicken breast and mixed greens. The new BBQ Ranch Chicken Salad includes roasted corn, applewood-smoked bacon, grilled chicken and diced tomatoes.

“We’re really continuing this process of innovation, and ultimately … the key is brand relevance and connecting with the consumers and relating our brand to the needs that consumers have,” Mr. Brolick said. “And I think right now we’re doing a nice job of that, but by the way, we think that we have so much opportunity in front of us and just can continue to build that relationship with consumers, because many of the traditional brands have said that one of the consumer groups that we’ve not connected with as much as we’d like to is the millennial generation. This is 77 million people out there who are very influential in forming brand perceptions, and we’ve not done as good a job with the millennial generation as we need to, and we’re definitely very, very focused on that.”

With 85% of its restaurants owned by franchisees, Wendy’s said it engages its franchise community in the innovation process “because the franchisees want to know that the products we put out there have been proven from a financial perspective, from an operating perspective and from a consumer perspective,” Mr. Brolick said. “And those are the three green lights that we look for on every single product that we put out there.”

The most effective brands in the market are those focused on beating themselves rather than beating the competition, he added.

“You’ve got to continue to evolve, you’ve got to maintain brand relevance, and that’s the way to get ahead,” Mr. Brolick said.