Back to the Start

Restaurants Back to the Start button

When is it time to hit the red button, stop everything, sit down and rethink your brand?

By Charlie Hopper

One brand has challenged me as a person and a professional for many years: Hardees/Carl’s Jr. They presented a vision so vivid, so single-focused, so effectively communicated, that a young, hormonal male alien randomly dropped into America would understand where he was expected to report for lunch. Sexiness sold.

As a marketer, I respected such clarity. As a daughter’s dad and wife’s husband, I hated it – along with (according to a poll) about half of America. Now Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. is going back to a version of its roots to reclaim what used to make the chain different. Will it work? Time and Whopper sales will tell.

A question emerges, though: How much longer would those sexy ads have worked? Was reverting to a semi-fictionalized history necessary or just another marketing choice? Arguably, Arby’s meats campaign is a reboot – they moved away from empty slogans to a compelling reason to believe. A “light rebrand” might be the term for Panera’s focus on food with no questionable ingredients. Chipotle didn’t start out as a crusader against factory farming, but made a bold decision to become one.

Perhaps your restaurant brand could use a rethink? Here are some considerations as you gaze at that reset button.

1. Are you on the hot seat?

Are you comfortable there? Do you get complaints? Did you understand from the beginning you were likely to offend folks with your unhealthy yet indulgent food served by extra-attractive human specimens, and decide early not to worry about it because your core audience would get it?

Do you sense there’s an unlimited supply of people who “get it?” If you confidently said yes to every one of those questions, very good then. Carry on. Next article.

2. Do you believe new customers are your future?

Most companies require steady growth to keep investors happy. But some restaurants are pretty much unchanged from the day they opened. Restaurants Back to the start lineTheir owners use phrases like “Don’t mess with success.”

Still, are most of your customers claiming AARP discounts? Do you have regulars to the point that you kind of only have regulars? You need new customers to replenish your supply of eaters, friend. How will you get them?

3. Do you have a big, obvious problem?

We may never have a better example of pragmatic, self-critical, publicly humble corporate-lemonade-made-from-the-lemons-of-brutal-focus-group-feedback as the Domino’s Pizza campaign from a few years back. Yes, it was a showy, calculated attempt to disarm critics with total honesty, but so brave.

They showed believably real people saying their pizzas were cardboard, flavorless and generally awful; they confessed how hard that was to hear; then they burned everything down and appeared to start over. Do you need to burn everything down? If your CEO embezzled or something, maybe not.

But if your neglect or misdeeds affect the food – yeah, did they find rats in your pantry and put it on the news? Are you famously bland? Take a cue from Domino’s and confront it head-on, then, like them, make sure you get credit for being so honest.

4. Do you have a legit history?

Lucky you. This is the prime place to dig – reality. Be you. Be more you than ever. Be you in a way nobody else can be. Did your ancestor invent a process (such as flame-broiling on a conveyor belt, like Burger King)? Did your founders add a twist to an existing process? Maybe a certain kind of wood for the wood-fired ovens, a secret ingredient or authentic ethnic prep? Anything?

Re-ignite that spirit, even if you fudge the specifics a little. Pull out the old photos and see what was there from the start. Usually it’s best if there was a bit of a rebellion, a sense that, “We saw how it was being done and knew we could do it better.”

5. No history, really? Well, clarify your position.

So your restaurant wasn’t someone’s dream or some eureka-moment for a charmingly aggressive entrepreneur? That’s still no excuse to get mired down in cliché language and food photography that could be exchanged with your neighbor’s restaurant.

Stop using the same imagery, tactics, and language. That’s no way to communicate why you’re better or even different from your customers’ usual choices. Come up with your vital reason to exist – even if you’re just now claiming it.

6. Can you get the message out?

If a brand falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, then reboots, and still there’s nobody around, does it make a huge investment for nothing? Let’s assume you don’t have a ton of marketing dollars to run a TV ad on every national sports program for a season. Social media comes to mind – good old word of mouth.

In addition to shouting out tweets and posts to the void, look for existing hashtags and conversations to join in. Then roll up your sleeves. Court the press. If you’re small, find a local cause. Cater or bring in groups with special offers, or stage an event. Time to invest your time.

7. Do you have guts?

Clearly, a reboot is a risk – your regulars can feel unwelcome, your new audience might never materialize and you might betray what makes you great chasing something that doesn’t quite ring true. But sometimes a group of marketers confronts the indifference of the public and finds something that charms, differentiates and positions their restaurant in a way that demands a second chance from rejecters and initial trial from those who’ve never been.

And isn’t that why your founder started the restaurant in the first place? (Hint: Answer yes to that, even if you’re not sure.)


Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at, as well as recently publish books Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International magazine, and Selling Eating: Restaurant Marketing Beyond the Word Delicious. Hopper is known for his unique and witty perspective on food and restaurant brands and is a regular contributor to Food & Drink International.


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