WhyHOP?

Remember the old expression, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” Well, you can retire that along with any hope for IHOP, who, in a pre-planned coordinated marketing/branding/PR effort, decided to change its name to IHOB.

At first, the brand teased the new name, and for a couple of weeks the Interwebs buzzed about the possibilities, roundly agreeing that the “B” would be for “breakfast.”

But noooooo. The we’re-smarter-than-you-are team at IHOP/B then dropped the real bomb: that the “B” would be for “burgers.”

I can hear you saying “but WHY? Why would a fast-casual restaurant chain with a 60-year history of serving (and dominating in) breakfast try to suddenly pivot to a burger chain? Especially in light of the fact that there are SO MANY bigger, richer, more entrenched burger chains across the category?

So first, let’s be clear: IHOP is NOT actually changing its name to IHOB. We’ve been trolled. We’ve been duped. We’ve been fake news-ed. And while it may seem fitting in the United States of Trump to push out fake stories in service of ulterior motives, this one’s not getting elected to anything soon.

Instead, the other restaurant chains are actually enjoying the halo effect of all of IHOP/B’s spent money and effort as they throw shade from every corner of the flat-top:

When a Twitter user asked Wendy’s if they were worried about the new competition, Wendy’s sharply replied: “Not really afraid of the burgers from a place that decided pancakes were too hard.” Ouch.

Taking it to a whole other level, Burger King has changed its Twitter handle to Pancake King to gloat.

Waffle House, a brand that can hardly get its shit in one bag as a brand, had this to say:
“Even though we serve delicious burgers… we know our roots.”

White Castle:
“We are excited to announce that we will be switching our name to Pancake Castle.”

Even Netflix – yes, Netflix…not even remotely in or near the category – got in on the action with this savage tweet:
“brb changing my name to Netflib”

This recent publicity stunt of “re-branding” of IHOP to IHOB is not only a temporary hoax, it’s also a strategic misstep. They were (likely) doing it to get some top of mind awareness around their new line of burgers, which they’re promoting hard over the summer to stave off sagging sales in the afternoon and evening periods.

But for brand managers and CMOs who have influence over things like this, top of mind is not the point in and of itself. Preference is the point. Difference is the point. You use top of mind tactics to cement your differences and create preference around them. Scams and gimmicks are for used car salesmen and some carpetbagger politicians, but not for supposedly mature brands.

When you’re good at something – indeed when you own an attribute that larger, more mature brands can’t touch you on – your job is to build on that advantage. Make the gap wider, and make it harder and harder for ANY brand to encroach on your position. Instead, what IHOP/B has done has created doubt in the mind of consumers.

The average consumer will think “why would they try to do burgers? They’re a breakfast place.” And that little bit of doubt about the brand’s judgment will leak into little bits of doubt about their ability to even win at breakfast anymore.

I’m sure the brand has girded themselves for this.  The last board meeting was probably filled with aphorisms like “it’s gonna look bad for a while, and we may even take some heat, but we’ll dominate the trades for a month.”

Last time I checked, nobody ever walked into an IHOP because they were dominating the trades. Come to think of it, nobody ever walked into an IHOP for a burger either.

Advertising: starring social media

I’m sure you’ve noticed this, but the phenomenon of digital interactivity – and especially via social media – has become a pervasive theme in modern television advertising.  Everywhere you look, brands of all kinds are using dramatic setups in their spots that either include, focus on or ultimately lead to some kind of digital interactivity.

To clarify, this is not just listing all the places you can find the brand on social media with a tag at the end of the spots.  This is regarding the growing number of spots being ABOUT social media, and about our digital lives, and how the brands are woven into our modern lifestyles.

Survey Monkey, typically regarded as a b-to-b entity, has gone out with an appeal to the consumer audience, and claims that their platform can be used “for all kinds of things, including event planning.”  What I love about this spot is the way it’s contextualized (and well-directed, as the story bookends the extended spot) around the “original” survey model.  Molly leaves a note in little Johnny’s locker, handwritten with crayon:  Do you like me?  With two options:  Yes.  No.  Classic.

Now, obviously, it makes sense for any type of online platform to use the digital life as the basis for the creative.  Google has done this marvelously before in their search spots, and more recently in a spot for their Nexus 7 product, where they use the theme of “search” as the basis for interacting with their electronic gadget.  It’s good – and they touch the humanity button perfectly with good casting and a few carefully planned tugs at the heartstrings.

Samsung’s Galaxy S4, (whose advertising still confounds me, since they’re just marketing around features instead of trying to find differentiating benefits, but that’s another post,) has a new spot featuring a traveling baseball team.  A bored infielder is using the video capture on the device to film his sleepyhead travel companion.  As the nod-er-off-er’s head bounces, the video is captured, and the buddy starts to tool on the loop.

And that’s what’s interesting – the ad isn’t about the quality of the video the device provides, the number of megapixels on the device, or even the dopey “tap to share” feature on the device, but rather on the video loop that this kid will create with the device.  (A primary-grade-level feature on any smartphone today.)  Ostensibly, the owner of the Galaxy S4 in this case is merely considering what a great Vine upload this would be, or at the very least how many likes that GIF will get on Tumblr.  THAT’s the unspoken focus of this spot, and it marginalizes the brand in some ways, because you can do that with ANY bloody phone.

In another category altogether, Wendy’s has taken up the social-media-as-the-end-to-the-means with its latest spot for its chicken flatbread sandwich.  In the old days, we would have just created a situation-comedy style setup with the big laugh at the end and then a 6-second panning beauty shot of the sandwich.  Today, the dialogue and setup is totally based on social media:  male character walks in and starts the dialogue with “hey…you saw my post on this great bakery…” and then ends with him posting a pic of redheaded “Wendy” to Twitter. [They also tagged the spot with a hashtag #twEATfor1k.]

And it goes beyond fast food into several other categories.  One new car commercial (for Honda) touts its “the car reads your emails for you” feature, and positions it as a safety benefit.  Smart.  But stop and think about that for a moment:  the brand recognizes the need for us to stay connected to our digital lives, and has built in an e-mail reading feature into their vehicles, and is now running spots promoting that.  That goes way beyond MP3 players and partnering with Pandora for entertainment purposes.

Surveys.  Search.  Social media posts.  All taking a lead role in spots for big brands.  Going even further, many brands now are using crowdsourced images and videos as the visual basis for their ads. It’s an interesting paradox, or at least a healthy turnabout:  for years, brands have hoped to be discussed and passively promoted through social media and across the digital landscape.  Now, social media and the digital life are being actively promoted via brand advertising.