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What We Can All Learn From IHOP’s Short-Lived Journey to Burgers

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P or B? Unique Value, Elasticity, and Branded Customer Experience

Long before the iPod, iPad, and iPhone, there was an “I” brand from my youth that had a strong and unique brand image. With its narrow restaurant layout, high pitched distinctively blue roof, and tables adorned with multiple types of syrup. It was none other than IHOP, the International House of Pancakes.

What’s that Name Again?

Now wait, am I getting old? I think they changed the name to IHOB, the International House of Burgers. No, no, no…that was so last month they are definitely back to the name International House of Pancakes.

When it comes to most topics, my crystal ball is no more accurate than anyone else’s but when it comes to brand, brand elasticity, and branded customer experience my predictions at least represent educated guesses. Such was the case when in early June it “leaked out” that IHOP was changing its name to IHOB and additional leaks indicated that the brand was shifting from expertise in pancakes to expertise in burgers. That prompted me in June to blurt out to friends, “This has to be a marketing gimmick.”

On this occasion, my impulsive utterance was correct!

Sticky Lessons

Let’s look at what we can all learn from IHOP’s short-lived journey to Burgers and back to Pancakes. Take out your forks and let’s dive in…

If IHOP was going to undertake a massive brand overhaul (one that removed and replaced their signature item from their brand name/identity) they would have had a compelling business reason that required them to do so like a serious loss of revenue in their morning and a need to gain greater revenue from their afternoon and evening.

An Adweek article written at the time of the purported name change certainly made a case for IHOP wanting to take a bite into the burger market, but I couldn’t see how they could easily reposition themselves from a breakfast brand into a mid-day and evening destination.

While I was certain that IHOP was seeking more afternoon and evening guests, I was also certain they did not wish to lose their morning market. Moreover, (unlike breakfast) their sister brand Applebee’s is poised to maximize guests in mid and late day dining times.

IHOP would have to have conducted substantial customer research to assure that the brand was sufficiently elastic to change the core product in the company’s brand identity. Having been a graduate student who helped test market the new Coke I learned that products preferred in blind taste tests (e.g., the sweeter new Coke vs. the less sweet traditional Coke) don’t necessarily gain acceptance with consumers.

In essence, customers limit how far a brand can stretch before the brand breaks consumer trust.

Changing a brand name or a logo can be positively disruptive and garner consumer attention, but the sustained success of those efforts rely on creating a branded customer experience.

If IHOP was going to shift the direction of the brand, they needed to do more than change the P into a B on their logo or talk about their black Angus steakburgers. They would have had to create a differentiated hamburger experience – (think Five Guys and their “fresh ground beef,” “no freezers on site,” “peanut oil cooking,” “bins of peanuts,”  “unlimited toppings,” and “overflowing fries.”)

Rebranding and Brand Experience

In essence, rebranding is a delicate art and seldom is it done on as radical a scale as IHOP appeared to be undertaking.

In fact, it is so delicate that IHOP never intended to do it. Instead, they appeared to rebrand to garner publicity for an expansion and upgrade of their burger menu. The proof of IHOP’s marketing gimmick can be found in the following tweet which morphs from this

 

to this

So, IHOP never turned it’s back on pancakes (except for the time they faked it to promote their new burgers).

Related: What the Recent Customer Experience Lessons Can Teach Us

And the Winner IS …

The jury is out on how effective IHOP’s faking it campaign worked for them. Over the short term, IHOP garnered substantial free publicity and buzz.

Official communications from IHOP leaders suggested that the campaign substantially increased awareness of their steakburgers and the company saw a sales increase for those products. Other analysts suggest the campaign has not had and will not have a lasting effect on consumers consideration of IHOP when they are thinking about a hamburger purchase.

Your Brand Buzz and Delivery

In any case, brand hype and rebranding (within the context of the elasticity of your brand) can be an important first step in garnering the attention of consumers. The real challenge, however, for IHOP (and for all of us) is to deliver a branded experience that assures customers will want to come back for our pancakes, hamburgers, cars, jewelry, dry cleaning services, etc.

If you would like to explore brand expansion and/or delivery of a branded customer experience, please contact us to talk.

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