3 Marketing Lessons (Stacked High) from IHOP’s Masterful ‘IHOb’ Campaign
By Katie McCaskey
The New York Times called it “A 21st century marketing success story.”
The paper referred to IHOP’s recent decision to “change” their name from International House of Pancakes to “IHOb.” Conveniently and strategically the brand left everyone guessing what the the “b” stood for – bacon? (Bitcoin?)
The “b” was revealed to stand for “burgers,” and the “name change” just a joke. Yet, the brand scored a tremendous amount of earned press and social media chatter. Even competitors commented on it.
Let’s look at IHOP’s marketing mastery. How did they spark such attention? And let’s be real — how did they prevent competitors from “crêping up” on them?
1. Double Blueberry Pancakes: Double Down on Suspense
The first key to success was the suspense.
Previously, IHOP had a rather staid reputation. One could argue it also had a dependable, and not-to-flashy, reputation as a brunch spot. No one associated “IHOP” with social media acumen, let alone a brand embracing jokes or pranks. IHOP is a brand “known” to make flapjacks, not waves on social media.
So, when IHOP dropped word of an official name change on social media, and on restaurant signs, it startled and infuriated. First, they changed their business name from “IHOP” to “IHOb” across social media channels without explanation. Next, they sprinkled a confusing, but engaging, linguistic switch between “p” and “b” in some of their updates. Then they waited.
The internet took it from there. What the b was going? According to the Los Angeles Times, the name change yielded 5 billion impressions on Twitter alone.
Nearly a week later the brand revealed the hoax. The suspense was successful because it went against brand perception. It was unexpected.
TIP: To garner attention play in contrast to your existing reputation. Here’s the difficulty: brands must be realistic about their existing perception. Better-known brands have more leeway. That’s because long standing brands can draw on existing brand reputation.
Newer, lesser-known brands can also “play against type” and successfully leverage suspense for promotion. However, lesser-known brands should apply suspense somewhere that doesn’t depend heavily on brand reputation. Here, a newer brand might play against expectations associated with their product or industry.
2. Full Stack: Master Every Medium
IHOP’s name change promotion and reveal was a coordinated effort across all channels.
According to IHOP, the plan was in development for a year. The rebranding coincided with the launch of new menu items. As of this writing the ‘IHOb’ r
e-branding is temporary, and expected to last through the summer.
Mastering multiple medium is key to success. The promotion would not have been effective otherwise.
From the lens of marketing alone, the communication coordination implied that the name change was legitimate. It also brought the “name change” a consistency.
IHOP hired an outside team – Droga5 – to craft channel-specific communication. Efforts were integrated across channels. Even a physical restaurant sign installed on a very visible franchise on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, according to the Times. The physical change of sign provided material for social media, for example.
TIP: Major marketing initiatives require careful coordination between internal and external communications. Planning should support the effectiveness of each channel. Concentrate on fewer channels to reap maximum rewards.
3. Specialty Pancakes (Cupcake Pancakes, Vanilla Spice, Mexican Tres Leches): Differentiation is Good
One visible marketing win is commentary by competitors.
Competitors will usually ignore a rival brand. Yet, customers can drive the conversation, and force commentary, especially on social media. This is a boon.
The acronym change brought Wendy’s, Arby’s, and many other brands into the conversation. For example, Wendy’s humorously and mock-defensively tweeted, “Not really afraid of the burgers from a place that decided pancakes were too hard.” This tweet was a win for both brands.
Marketing depends heavily on voice and style. Even a “fake” branding campaign relies on a certain consistency. Reinforce what makes your brand different than a competitor. Welcome competitor commentary; it demonstrates your approached is being noticed.
TIP: Social media marketing can be a fast-paced blur once the conversations start. A brand can showcase difference between a rival by use of voice and style. A solid marketing plan establishes voice and style beforehand, then allows for spontaneity.
Any major brand reinvention, even in jest, is a risky proposition.
One of the biggest risks is stellar marketing with the wrong aim. For example, a few years ago JC Penny attempted to take a nod from Target and position itself as “approachably upscale”. The marketing messaging worked. Unfortunately, it ended discouraging existing, value-oriented customers, and didn’t engage new, trendy customers. A repositioned brand should enliven the existing customer base as it reaches out.
This returns us to the beginning. A brand must know its reputation in order to successfully play with it. The business behind a brand must always consider customers. This campaign proves IHOP knows both of these important metrics well.
About Katie McCaskey
Katie McCaskey is Content Director of OpenWater, an awards management software platform. Visit the site to download free resources to establish and grow an awards program.
Twitter: @getopenwater Facebook: getopenwater
LinkedIn: openwaterincPhoto: RawPixel
Also published on Medium.