IHOP's comms head on why 'tension creates really good marketing'

Stephanie Peterson dishes on the strategy behind "pancake" burgers and "rebranding," again.

GLENDALE, CA: IHOP is embracing the tension that its IHOb campaign created last year by "leaning into the hate" from some social media users, said the brand’s communications head, Stephanie Peterson.

IHOP renamed its burgers "pancakes" on Monday, as part of its latest campaign to troll people who flipped out after it temporarily rebranded as IHOb last year. IHOb was short for "International House of Burgers," a name that was part of the brand’s push to promote non-pancake menu offerings. While it earned the chain plenty of media attention, it did not go over well with some customers, who told the brand to stick to pancakes.

In this sequel, IHOP is running a campaign jumping off one insight: the tension the IHOb push created last year.

"We are playing up the essence of what the IHOb campaign was and leveraging the conversation that happened around it," said Peterson. "It was such a phenomenon last year in terms of generating this love-hate for the campaign itself. It felt like there were opportunities there to lean into that."

IHOP particularly wants to go back to skeptics and let them know that "burgers are still here to stay at IHOP, but that doesn’t mean pancakes aren’t still our number one," she added.

Last week, IHOP tweeted a video of the B in IHOb turning into a P with the text, "What could the P be? Find out June 3. #IHOP." Over the weekend, the brand posted a live painting of a billboard to keep the mystery going, said Peterson. She said the teaser campaign had "strong results."

"People in some ways were like, "’Oh, here we go again,’ yet they still wanted to play along," said Peterson.

She added that headlines about the campaign have been "more sensationalized than the actual content," but those play into the campaign’s goal.

"We want to take those headlines, that social sentiment and those call outs and flip it and turn it into something fun and positive," said Peterson.

There were more than 3.3 million tweets about #IHOb last year, and the campaign led to the chain selling four times the amount of black Angus beef steakburgers than it had before. The burgers are still selling double what they did before, according to the chain.

The IHOb push has also set the stage for other ways the 60-year-old brand can stay relevant. On National Pizza Day, IHOP created a pancake served and eaten like a pizza, or a "Pancizza," available for delivery in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas; and last fall, the brand launched a limited edition IHOPS Pumpkin Pancake Stout.

This week, IHOP also created The Bancake List, an aggregated database of Twitter users who told IHOP to stay in its lane during the IHOb campaign. To get off the list, which can be seen at BancakeList.com, they just have to tweet something nice about the chain’s pancakes or burgers.

IHOP is also running TV spots that take the social content and use it in a different medium, said Peterson.

Droga5 is IHOP’s creative agency, handling its TV and social media efforts. DeVries Global is the brand’s PR firm, which is seeding content for media and influencer engagement. Budget information was not disclosed.

Peterson hinted that the campaign will include influencers eating IHOP-branded burger buns, "so people literally eat their words."

"We are not expecting backlash, rather we are expecting a conversation," she said. "Tension creates really good marketing because without it, you are kind of invisible. We are closely monitoring the conversation and dialing up or pivoting, depending on what it looks like."

Another rebrand probably isn’t in the cards for IHOP. Instead, consumers will see more campaigns from the brand designed to generate interest and conversation.

"Fans should expect something new, a little different and to see us leaning into humor," she added.

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