Dan Murphy: ‘B’ is for Buzz, Not for Business

IHOP recently tried to position itself as a place to go for more than just pancakes. ( Farm Journal )

Most people who heard rumors that the venerable International House of Pancakes, aka, IHOP, was going to change its name after 60-plus years to “IHOb” simply registered puzzlement.

Why would they do that, people idly wondered (me included), followed by, well … who cares?

For all of management’s determination over the decades to hold fast to the chain’s status as an early-morning-when-you’re-hungry/late-night-when-you’re-buzzed “destination,” IHOP always suffered from both its self-imposed menu limitations and the “Chuck E. Cheese syndrome” — meaning, a place whose pancake creations are really exciting to a six-year-old, but far less enticing to anyone holding a driver’s license.

Minus the exceptions noted above.

In my experience, IHOP wasn’t the answer to “What sounds good?” but rather, “What’s still open?”

Lots of Hype and Hot Air
Maybe after 60 years, the restaurant needed to refresh both its menu and its image, but the clunky campaign launched by its marketing team had all the wow factor of a short stack soaked in syrup that some toddler couldn’t finish.

As USA Today noted, the goal of the campaign was to get people guessing what the “b” in the new name was going to represent, and then watch the anticipation go viral!

Nice try.

Turns out (fake drum roll), the “b” was for “burgers,” an answer that occurred to most people by process of elimination days before the official announcement. After all, the “b” wasn’t going to stand for “breakfast;” the restaurants are already pretty much all about breakfast. And other lame guesses, like “bacon,” just didn’t make sense.

The build-up over the made-for-social-media name-change game never reached anything remotely resembling “Who Shot J.R.?” levels, but IHOP’s campaign “succeeded in generating buzz,” as USA Today noted. “The number of people who talked about the restaurant chain with friends and family rose from 19% to 30% in the week following its announcement, according to YouGov, IHOP’s Word of Mouth Score,” the newspaper reported.

Too bad same-store sales didn’t experience a similar surge: YouGov’s BrandIndex data showed that IHOP’s “purchase consideration score” stayed flat through the first half of 2018.

Nevertheless, IHOP management claimed to be happy with their manufactured marketing initiative.

“While unsolicited third-party research results are interesting, [they] don’t completely or accurately reflect what we’re seeing in our restaurants,” spokeswoman Stephanie Peterson said in a statement. “Overall, we’re pleased with early results and the guest feedback we’ve heard related to our new Steakburgers.”

I’m also pleased that a restaurant in 2018 decided to refocus its branding on ground beef. It’s not like there are dozens of other chains battling each other to see who can more aggressively market burgers. In fact, most fast-food operators remain committed to a decades-long effort to de-emphasize hamburgers in favor of what patrons perceive as healthier fare.

But here’s where the campaign went off the rails.

As several media outlets noted, the alleged name change is only temporary. In fact, it’s not a name change at all, just hype that IHOP executives hoped would translate into heavier traffic and bigger tickets.

The good news in all this brand refreshing and online buzzing is that you can still stroll into an IHOP/IHOb and order up a couple thousand calories of a chocolate-covered, whipped cream-slathered, sprinkles-topped, butter-drenched stack of refined carbs guaranteed to spike your blood glucose to coma-inducing levels.

And depending on the time of day and, shall we say, one’s state of mind, that can totally hit the spot.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.