IHOP bet big on burgers, got a deserved salute

Restaurant Business

Was IHOP's rebranding a smart move? RB Executive Editor Jonathan Maze and Editor-at-Large Peter Romeo offer opposing points of view. For the alternate take, see The Bottom Line.

peter romeo blog

At times like these, it’s fitting we honor Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, the disruptor whose groundbreaking publicity work was echoed this week in the modern-day equivalent of water-cooler conversations, a.k.a. social-media ranting. Shipwreck, of course, was the forward thinker who became a media sensation in the 1920s by sitting atop a flagpole for 49 straight days, firmly establishing the publicity stunt as a marketing tactic (he became the shill for Frigidaire mid-sit.).

His legacy was so evident in the restaurant industry this week that even my colleague Jonathan Maze noticed the manifestation, the unabashed publicity stunt pulled off by IHOP. He’s upset the usually stodgy brand pretended to change its name to IHOb, a cheeky way of calling attention to a new burger. A “b” for burger instead of a “p” for pancake—get it? 

Fortunately, that move was such a red flag to my colleague that he missed other flashes of Shipwreck’s influence. Arby’s, for instance, just joined Kelly in the record books with an entry for World’s Smallest Ad, a teaser etched on a sesame seed and visible only via microscope. The plug calls on consumers to stay tuned for a big announcement from the sandwich chain next week.

The Arby’s and IHOP ploys were in addition to Domino’s announcement of a new pothole-filling public service campaignan initiative intended to safeguard a pie’s integrity during a delivery runand KFC’s offer of inflatable Colonel. Sanders pool floats. 

If Jonathan wants to avoid more marketing tomfoolery like that, he’d best find a sturdy flagpole and make a run on Shipwreck’s record. Stunts are no doubt going to continue, a direct result of social media’s importance as a way of staying top of mind, and the irrefutable proof that they work.

Flipping a “p” to a “b” made IHOP the talk of social media this week, a distinction it likely hasn’t enjoyed since shouting into a megaphone was the height of that communication form.  The bashing was extensive, with any number of competitors piling on. But the point was to get noticed, and the gambit worked brilliantly in that regard.

From the teaser portion of the gimmick—announcing the chain would change its name to IHOb, but not explaining why—to the big reveal on Monday, IHOP—er, IHOb—was mentioned 362,000 times online, according to the media monitoring service Brandwatch. In contrast, the chain was part of internet conversations just 21,000 times in May, Brandwatch says.

Jonathan is good with numbers, but for the benefit of the calculator dependent: That’s a seventeen-fold leap in word-of-mouse marketing. 

Afterward, IHOb President Darren Rebelez shared some information with the RB staff about the impact of the promotion, and the numbers were phenomenal. The ploy generated 1.2 million tweets, at a rate that hit 86,000 an hour at one point.

The true test, of course, is whether the gimmick moved sales. But that’s less a function of the marketing method than what’s being spotlighted. I agree with the critics who yawn and say, What’s so special about offering a burger? 

But even Shipwreck could have seen from his perch that the message was heard. Indeed, Rebelez said 80% of the traffic on IHOb's website after the name change came from first-time visitors.

Just because we dislike a marketing method doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. Otherwise, infomercials would have been gone long before Shipwreck was.

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