Outstanding or overdone? Marketers split on IHOP rebranding stunt

Sure, IHOP got lots of attention this week when it (temporarily) rebranded as IHOb. But experts questioned the long-term benefits of the "rebrand."

Is IHOP’s temporary rebranding as IHOb a brilliant marketing success or a cheap stunt? Marcomms professionals are as divided as consumers on the question, with some characterizing it as bold and others saying it’s gimmicky and even undermines the craft.

Following an almost-week-long teaser campaign, IHOP revealed on Monday that it had flipped its "P" upside down and "IHOb" would stand for "International House of Burgers" instead of Pancakes – at least temporarily.

The pancake chain has offered other menu items, including burgers for lunch and dinner, for years. However, after 10 consecutive quarters of declining foot traffic, its goal was likely to tap a potential growth area for the brand.

"The IHOb campaign was deliberately designed to be disruptive because we had to change paradigms in people’s heads," said IHOP CMO Brad Haley.

Some observers think the brand succeeded, and that its burgers should sell, well, like hotcakes.

Richard Spragg, CEO at Hirebrand and VP at U.K.-based creative agency realityhouse, calls the name change "a brave piece of promotion," noting, "It’s been effective in getting everyone talking."

"Hopefully, they have something creative planned for the big it-was-all-a-prank reveal, but in the meantime, they’ll sell a lot of burgers and grab some market share from the traditional burger market, possibly permanently if they can deliver on quality," he says.

Another marcomms expert is saluting the campaign for being well-thought-out from the logo to social media to the food itself.

"This campaign so far has been absolutely brilliant, creating anticipation, followed by massive attention, and social sharing," agrees Chris Cradduck, partner at LDWWgroup. "It even led to online reviews by major outlets such as Business Insider that called the burgers ‘shockingly good.’"

IHOP has seen a surge in social and digital traffic since launching the campaign. The rebranding has been featured in more than 15,000 media stories and garnered high shareability on social media, mostly on Twitter. It also recorded a spike of traffic to ihop.com on Monday that was five times higher than usual.

However, IHOP’s rebranding recipe wasn’t to the taste of everyone. Scott Monty, CEO of Brain+Trust Partners, wrote on Twitter, "Can’t tell if the IHOP/IHOb announcement is a brilliant PR stunt or a horribly misguided business strategy." He acknowledges the campaign generated significant publicity, but says that doesn’t necessarily mean it will all be effective for the brand.

"If we're sticking to vanity metrics such as views, likes, shares, or even buzz, does that tell you whether the program has been successful? If the goal was to increase conversation around a brand, then sure," says Monty. "But if the goal was to drive foot traffic and sales, then buzz alone may not do that."

Other experts say the campaign was misguided at a time when media and brands are battling fake news stories.

"A gimmick like this is based on a certain amount of deceit," says Dan Hill, founder and CEO of Hill Impact. "You are going to industry press that covers you on a daily basis and tricking them into thinking you’re doing a rebrand, when in fact you’re using them for a marketing purpose. There are enough people who think PR is gimmicky enough, and this only reinforces that stereotype with some stakeholders, including journalists."

Even with a fake rebrand, Hill adds that IHOP is setting up expectations of a refreshed experience in restaurants, only to disappoint some customers who go in and see nothing has changed.

"While IHOP may have had a short-term benefit in terms of media stories and impressions, I don’t know that it will move the needle in terms of sales," says Hill.

Paul Sears, SVP of integrated marketing at Allison+Partners, concurs. He likes the campaign’s teaser element – some had predicted the "b" was going to stand for breakfast – but says the reveal felt like a bait-and switch tactic.

"It is so easy for marketers to forget how serious people take their brands, and so using a fake rebrand as a short-term promotion, while not without upside in getting attention, really undermines the brand’s long-term value," says Sears. "At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s making consumers hungry for IHOP burgers."

Rival chains roast IHOP
Some contend the real winners of the IHOP campaign are other burger chains, which took to social media and grilled IHOP on the switcheroo.

Burger King, for instance, temporarily changed its logo on Twitter and Facebook to "Pancake King."

Wendy’s tweeted, "Can’t wait try a burger from a place that decided pancakes were too hard."

"They got a lot of visibility poking fun at the inconsistency of IHOP, while refocusing back on themselves and their own core expertise," says Sears.  

However, other executives don’t buy the argument that it benefits other burger brands.

"I can’t say that snarky tweets will make people flock to the competition. At best, it’s entertaining," says Monty. "But it also shows those brands’ lack of consistency of their own brand image, except for Wendy’s, whose logo is an adolescent."

Cradduck says he initially thought competitors might try to hijack the campaign, "but the way it ended up, the competition just fueled an already scorching fire. It ultimately increased the odds that someone might see the campaign and consider checking out ‘IHOb’ for a burger."

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