IHOP Burger Gimmick Fails to Entice

Rebranding is serious business, even if the campaign you use to communicate the plan is delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. There are a lot of variables and multiple interlocking considerations. How will we communicate our reasons? How will longtime customers react? How will the target customers we want to attract react to the campaign? How will our staff and management communicate this change to their team? Will we have a single, cohesive vision and message, or will people adlib and create brand confusion? Will people love it or hate it? So many questions…

Sometimes, rebrands are fairly simple: Kentucky Fried Chicken became KFC, while keeping the same menu, colors and overall look. Some companies gradually change, so slowly that many customers don’t really notice. Just look at the progression of the Starbucks logo.

But there are times when the pomp and circumstance around an impending “rebrand” is just that: spectacle. In those cases, brands walk a fine line between letting their fans in on the “joke” or trying to play it straight and getting lampooned. The recent saga of IHOP becoming “IHOb” is more an example of the latter than the former.

The fundamental conceit driving the fake rebranding campaign was to announce that IHOP would be focusing on more than just breakfast at their restaurants. They would become the “International House of Burgers”… At least, that was the story. And, at least in the early going, consumers took the bait. Countless people reacted strongly on social media, and the discussion and debate about the rebranding lasted for weeks. So far, so good for “IHOb.”

Then, after all the drama, came the announcement: It was nothing more than a marketing gimmick. No name change, no rebranding, no new foundational commitment to serving a better cheeseburger. It was all about getting attention in the crowded casual dining market.

Fans did not react kindly. Granted, the backlash was not nearly as visceral as the time someone in charge of social media marketing at IHOP thought it would be hilarious to make a meme poking fun at women’s breasts… but when you step back and look at those two events, it’s easy to wonder who’s at the helm over there at Team IHOP.

There was always going to be risk in this kind of gimmick. That’s guaranteed. People will either love it or hate it. But someone on that team needed to ask the obvious follow up question: “If this idea gets panned, what other stuff will the media talk about in conjunction with that story?”

Unfortunately, far too many people fail to think about that. And while I can’t say that IHOP did or did not ask that question, I can say they are not happy countless news outlets are currently reminding roughly half of their customers that, not that long ago, the brand chose to refer to their anatomy in a disparaging manner. On its face, many people won’t care, but they will internalize a somewhat negative feeling related to IHOP. Then, next time they want pancakes, they may choose to go elsewhere. Not because they remembered a cheesy rebranding gimmick or an offensive meme… but because they “feel like” they prefer the competition.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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