First, there was the cryptic tweet: IHOP announced that soon, it would become IHOb. What would the “b” stand for? Breakfast seemed the obvious choice. Nonetheless, the Internet was abuzz, waiting.
And then the revelation: The venerable International House of Pancakes was becoming the International House of … burgers? No, don’t laugh. it’s only temporary. The whole thing was a marketing stunt designed to publicize the chain’s new line of burgers. The stunt received … mixed reviews. As did the burgers.
Complain as you may, however, you can’t get around the fact that IHOP got everyone (including many people who haven’t entered an IHOP for years) talking about the fact that the chain a) still exists and b) it has a new burger line. As far as marketing schemes go, that’s a wild success. Which is presumably why its parent company’s stock ticked up nicely on the news.
There’s always risk of blowback with things like this, of course; fans of a beloved brand often resent any attempt to take it in a new direction. Yet most of the pans that I’ve seen of either the stunt or the burgers have consisted of people saying, “You fools, I love your pancakes! Why would I eat one of your mediocre burgers when I could be having your delicious pancakes doused in an assortment of syrups?”
People screaming about how great your pancakes are is hardly a marketing fail. Historical precedent suggests that this kind of nostalgia can revive a troubled brand, even from the brink of catastrophe.
When Coke was losing market share to Pepsi back in the 1980s, it switched to a new formula that was sweeter, that was more … well, more like Pepsi. It endured a frightening backlash and had to switch back to the old formula after just a few months. But then something strange happened: People began buying more Coca-Cola. Threatening to take away a beloved product had reminded people just how much they loved the old favorite they’d been neglecting.
By making this a temporary move, IHOb may have summoned that nostalgic excitement without putting the brand at risk. If sales spike as Wall Street seems to expect, this will be a landmark moment in marketing history.
And that’s exactly the kind of moment that IHOP badly needed. Though its marketing department is clearly at the top of its game, the restaurant chain itself is in a tough spot. The whole “casual dining” sector, of which IHOP is an elder statesman, is under fierce pressure from “fast casual” outlets such as Panera, Chipotle and Shake Shack that have successfully straddled the line between fast food and restaurants. They offer higher-quality food, using fresher ingredients, than the old fast-food places, but they serve it quick and let you get on your way without having to tip a waitress.
And IHOP was under particularly great pressure, for two reasons. First, one of its key selling points is its family-friendly menus. And second, its iconic product is a pile of carbohydrates drenched in sugary syrup.
For a long time, that was a great space to be in. People with children need someplace they can take the kids for a meal without worrying that their children will throw a tantrum over unfamiliar foods, or deface the expensive decor. And carbohydrates are about the cheapest ingredients you can buy, meaning that you can sell them at an attractive price-point while still earning a nice markup.
Then the low-carb craze hit America. At the same time (though probably not related), Americans stopped having kids. Leaving IHOP with a bit of a strategic problem: Few restaurants can depend entirely on the custom of suburban teenagers who need a place that will let them stuff 15 high school seniors into one booth, each of whom will then nurse one soda for three hours.
Is focusing on burgers the answer to that problem? Maybe not. The burger space is incredibly crowded, and it seems unlikely that IHOb is going to edge out Smashburger, Shake Shack and Five Guys as the destination of choice for burger connoisseurs.
On the other hand, let’s be honest: We never went to IHOP for the superb food. We went to IHOP because it offered a place to sit down with a group, and a large enough menu that everyone in the group could find something to eat. Adding more burgers on that menu moves its center of gravity away from “carboload,” which will probably help it retain this special place in our lives. Especially now that everyone in America is aware that those burgers are there.
And along the way, they seem to have helped others remember how much they loved eating those pancakes, however guilty that pleasure may be. So though I prefer my burgers medium rare, I’d like to offer IHOb a hearty “well done.”