IHOP & Agency Droga5 Double Down on IHOb

Let’s hope the great creative minds at Droga5 survive the company’s acquisition by consulting firm Accenture.

We all remember what happened last year when IHOP flipped the last letter of its name to a B to become IHOb, or the International House of Burgers. Chaos ensued. Gnashing of teeth. Brand experts, celebrities, newscasters and seemingly everyone else in the world couldn’t help themselves. How stupid! It’s a pancake place! Who would go there for burgers?

Lots of people, apparently. According to IHOP CMO Brad Haley,

…the promotion boosted IHOP’s lunch and dinner business and drove total day sales gains, with burgers sold peaking at a four times improvement on a year-over-year basis and holding steady at two times throughout the balance of 2018. IHOb was the most effective campaign in brand history, generating 22K media stories, $113M in earned media ad value and holding the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 positions trending on Twitter at the same time.

IHOP needed help, and they got it with new marketing leadership from Haley and Droga5. Five years ago I would have likened their brand personality as someone who was aging, overweight and irrelevant. The Kevin James character on the old King of Queens TV show, perhaps. IHOP is what I like to call a “Solid Citizen” brand. Premium, popular, even exciting in its day, but now just another choice. Kind of like how Paul McCartney was the cute, sexy Beatle in 1964 and now he’s a nice old man playing his nice old hits. Nothing wrong with that, but his brand is now nostalgia, not excitement.

IHOP has transformed itself into a relevant brand, appealing to loyal Gen Y and Z customers with a modern, self-aware, quirky personality. And not to rest on its laurels, the brand is launching a campaign that doubles down on IHOb.  New ads once again feature burgers, but a 50’s-type (self-deprecating?) spokeswoman insists on calling them “pancakes.”

The spots are fun, building directly on last year’s success. But I also love how they capture the Orwellian nature of our current political climate. The ad seems to pay homage to CNN, which tapped into Big Brother in a more serious way with its post-Trumpian campaign about truth: “This is an apple. It will always be an apple. You can call it a banana, but it will still be an apple.”

Turning around a Solid Citizen Brand is no easy task. Not just brands, but entire product categories fall out of favor as the result of constant innovation and changing tastes. It takes real guts. Easing into the future isn’t an option.

I was very uncomfortable with the IHOb promotion last year. None of my thoughts or feelings were “in the middle.” I wish I could say that I had spotted the genius right away, but I couldn’t decide if it was just a stupid, over-the-top stunt or if they were really on to something.

The answer is clear in hindsight, as is the lesson. You want to change? Do you really want to innovate? If so, be prepared to be uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.

There are going to be a lot of upset people along the way. In the case of IHOP, I can only imagine what some of their franchisees were thinking when they first saw the IHOb campaign.

Of course, shaking things up for no good reason, with no insight and no planning is never wise. Just read the headlines in today’s newspaper. The strategic purpose behind IHOb does seem to be disruption with a purpose.

Brands aren’t people. Difficult as it may be, they can be rejuvenated. IHOb forced us all to have a conversation about a brand we didn’t think about very much. To question our core beliefs and see it in a different light.

Not comfortable, but very effective.

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