Carl’s Jr. is starved for attention

For years, CKE’s Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s brands have been known as much for the models in their ads as for anything they have done in the kitchen. It seems their young, male audience liked the ads quite a bit. Or at least paid attention. The ads aren’t just famous for having slim, carefully lit women in bikinis eating their burgers. They’re also famous for hiring very relevant women in bikinis eating their burgers. Heidi Klum, Paris Hilton and Kate Upton are just a few of the ladies employed by the brand(s) and always at just the right time in their career. They even featured Kim Kardashian in an ad (for salads) earlier in her rise to fame when the audience wasn’t seeing her literally everywhere.

Former CEO Andrew Puzder credits the approach with helping to ‘save the brand.’ But as Carl’s Jr. flags along with most of the industry, the shift is on. The brand is moving on aggressively. They’re using a new cast of characters of their own design to destroy to old elements of the brand, such as “bikinis.”

Commenters held the show hostage until the actor held a shoe on his head

The site on which the video is hosted tells you more about the confusion Carl’s Jr. is facing. Twitch, the extremely popular streaming video site for gamers and other growing niche interests was chosen most likely for the cool factor and separation from Google. As the number of views tells you, this approach is far different from their Superbowl spots. The ongoing fragmentation of TV and media is driving down their ability to reach a large swath of their audience with impact.

This is precisely why many smaller brands have turned to influencers. Influencers are hand-picked to appeal to each of the fragments of the audience that brands were once able to reach with TV every Thursday without fail. People perk up momentarily to hear what an influencer passes through their stream of content about style, food or brands. It’s a way to make a message a bit more attention worthy to a focused group. This is how marketing and advertising is evolving on the internet.

But especially on a channel like Twitch, where content is authentic and rarely staged, it’s not the place to stage a show about blowing up the old brand assets. In fact, the content of the show – actors portraying the titular Carl Jr. and his father Carl Sr. along with a wider cast of characters – is more akin to the kind of creative that would have made sense on TV. But it feels out of place and awkward on Twitch. The viewcount supports that. The top video in the set has under 15,000 views; smaller than the worst TV ad the brand has ever run. And those views are for a video clip in which the commenters held the show hostage until the actor held a shoe on his head.

Curiously, the brand had the formula for the internet age even before Twitch was invented. No, not nearly nude models eating messy fast food. This is not about the oddly sexist content of their past TV ads. But attention hacking with names their audience knew – or certainly found worth Googling – was the formula most brands are embracing online. Carl’s Jr. is pivoting to a branded version of “Arrested Development” for an audience that watches more streaming videogames than long-form television.

Right now, brands are still comparing impressions evenly and feeling that any attention is good attention. Time will tell if the strategy pays off.

The viral hype is on menus, not memes.

Every day it seems that there is a new viral sensation sweeping your social media feed. No, not the latest OK Go video, DJ Khaled snap or Kardashian whatever they do. Think food. First it was the Pinterest-ready cupcakes rendered in beautiful pastels. The next big thing was macarons. Then the cronut became a standout solo hit. Giant pizza slices. Brisket burrito. It feels like these new items hit the internet daily. Because they pretty much do.

Each new item attracts visitors to the restaurant, along with Likes, shares and clicks. And most of these items are the creations of independent restaurants. But major brands don’t fire off crave-worthy novelties at the same pace. Sure KFC had the Double Down, and now sister brand Taco Bell has the Naked Chicken Chalupa (look familiar?). But by-and-large, these items are few and far between.

They usually play like novelties invented just for the press release. Gimmicks like the Panera Bread “secret menu” attempt, designed to ride the success pioneered authentically by some brands but ultimately falling short. Outback Steakhouse’s 3 Point Bloomin’ Onion (topped with cheese fries and steak) was clearly built to get media attention. It failed to gain visitors because it just doesn’t look that good to eat.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes.

For the restaurants that create the Sushi donut, initial traffic crashes the place. Traffic is the goal of major brands as well. But independents, strapped for resources, fail to capitalize by moving those there to try the viral hit onto more mainstream menu items. Major QSR, Fast Casual and Casual Dining brands have the R+D departments but somehow fail to innovate.

So, what’s different?

The Double Down success was as much a product of its curiosity inducing form as it was the media buy that gave it visibility. It was never intended to be a mainstay on the menu at KFC. But it also failed to create serious levels of demand, unlike the buffalo chicken chimichanga. These are the items that younger guests seek because they’re not only looking for unique food experiences, but they’re looking for things to share on social media.

Taco Bell is well positioned to launch a string of viral food hits. They have the food oddity gene in their DNA by virtue of the co-opted nature of their Amexican cuisine and history of flavor combinations like the Doritos Locos tacos. Taco Bell also has the top viral audience coming in daily. And now for Waffle Tacos. So why aren’t sales continuing to rise?

The food that goes viral have something else in common. Like Taco Bell, they are remixes of popular items. Sushi and Donuts for example. Unlike Taco Bell, they tend to cross culinary lines that brands locked into a corporate flavor profile have trouble finding. The cronut, maybe the item that started the viral food trend, seems simple. But French pastry techniques and good old deep fried dough had never been cross pollinated, despite sitting next to each other on New York City bakery shelves for decades.

Many viral hits across media are remixes. Music, movies, even viral videos about remixes. Fragmentation has rendered mass attention harder than ever to earn. Artists and media seek to leverage known properties, or very, very familiar ideas to draw a bigger initial audience. The easier it is to explain, the bigger the audience opportunity.

In light of the change in culture, brands need to find their own Sushi Donut that will attract initial attention, drive trial and allow for menu exploration down the road. Mixing favorite flavors is one recipe for viral success. Creativity doesn’t have to be original to be successful.

Experience vs. Expect

Experience, experience, experience. Since the 1990’s experts have been talking about experience as the critical component for brands. In 1999, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote The Experience Economy laying the foundation for decades of conversation on this topic. Unlike many books that make a splash in the brand world, the ideas in this one have flourished as a platform, living on and growing as new thinkers add their ideas.

Experience can’t be commoditized. There can be many similar experiences, such as occasions at a fast casual restaurant, but it is something that each guest takes in personally. They process it in their own way and add it to a mental catalogue of experience types they have a unique perspective on.

If you’ve never spent time in the southeastern US, you may expect Famous Dave’s or even Dickie’s as an acceptable standard.

This is because there are multiple thought processes humans have add up to experience. We don’t take in our visit to Famous Dave’s with our eyes alone. We smell the smoke and sauce, the see the decor and the people, we hear the music. Ultimately we interact with a host and a server, maybe a bartender. There is conversation and feedback, maybe a joke and a laugh. Where do we sit? Maybe near a rowdy group or a table with young children. And yes, we eat and drink.

And at each step of the way we are recalling memories related to Famous Dave’s, what we know about other barbecue restaurants and food, bars and restaurants. We index against our likes and dislikes. This experience relates directly to what is created by the sum of life we have lived before this visit: what do we expect? Expectations can be more powerful than our senses.

What we ‘expect’ is rarely the friend of positive experience. They more we expect as a consumer, the easier it is to be let down. The last movie you saw based on a glowing review probably didn’t live up to the hype. Simply put, this is because you expect greatness and the greatness of your imagination outperformed the film itself.

What do you expect from a barbecue restaurant? Thinking about the category brings to mind some very real sensations. If you’ve never spent time in the southeastern US, you may expect Famous Dave’s or even Dickie’s as an acceptable standard. Those in Austin, Alabama or Georgia expect something wholly different. Noise and music, yes. But the food experience is completely different.

This is why the focus has shifted from the experience economy to the expectation economy. Every brand has a product that meets the basic need. Consumers expect that any restaurant will provide a meal. For 20 years, brands have grown based on improvements to the experience. But consumers have now come to expect a baseline of experience as part of their meal. Expectations are fueled by promises made by the brand, experiences elsewhere and by research or information the consumer has gathered independently, such as Yelp reviews.

The challenge now is to deliver on the base level of the category expectation, and to add to the experience in novel ways. This upends expectations and volleys the ball back to competitors leaving them the job of defending their own experience against this new level of service or delight. Only brands that continuously push forward like Domino’s Pizza will be able to rise above what the consumers expect in a low experience category. Order with a tweet and have it delivered by a custom car with a heated cabin? How does the neighborhood pizza place keep up with that new expectation?