Myths For Sale

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What's a rewritten history worth? 

By Charlie Hopper

What’s your history good for? Is your restaurant’s heritage a positive? Dunkin’ Donuts says, “Nope, negative,” and encourages us to ignore our fascination with glazed pink donuts and whatever Bavarian Cream is. “Stop! Don’t think of donuts! Think of, uh, turkey wraps. Yeah. From ‘Dunkin.’ Just...’Dunkin...’”

“We used to be like you,” says KFC, in a wistful, rueful tone. “We used to think we were limited by fried chicken, of all things, and wanted people to forget we fry stuff and think about our grilled chicken and maybe a salad or something.” KFC shakes its head. “Now we’re so desperate to reclaim our heritage we hired Reba McEntire to pose as our dead founder. These days we’ll batter and fry pretty near anything. And sales are up. We’re renovating our history with fresh paint and funny actors, and it’s working.”

So, who’s the better inspiration to us all? Dunkin’, with their recently announced “Play down the history” hunch? Or KFC’s “I wish we hadn’t played down the history” hard-won wisdom?

Should you mythologize your past? Well, let’s think about that.

1. Would rewritten history be a welcome distraction?

YES? Jack in the Box had nightmare publicity troubles in the nineties when they showed a commercial literally blowing up their board room and returning to the values and common-sense instincts of a ping-pong-ball-headed business exec. That campaign has run over 20 years. I wonder if Papa John’s minions are pulling that old ad up on YouTube these days and watching it in their off hours. Ad Age is reporting they’re considering taking the apostrophe out of their name. Will anyone notice? Plural “Johns?” Hm. Maybe a more dramatic rewrite is in order. Time will tell.

NAH. Most restaurants don’t need to undo their existing brand. People are pretty forgetful. Nobody suggested Chick-fil-A change their name when their founder said unpleasant things. If customers like the food, they’ll overlook a lot (to the chagrin of offended political activists).

2. Is your real history interesting all by itself?

YES? Ruth’s Chris Steak House has an almost-irritatingly funky name, but when the history is explained – a lady in New Orleans named Ruth bought “Chris Steak House,” so it’s Ruth’s Chris – it turns into a plus. People kind of chew on the absurdity of that name, discover the etymology and repeat it to each other like oral history. They remember it. It’s a good example of an idea that Malcolm Gladwell referred to as “sticky.”

NAH. For 18 years, I was associated with a restaurant founded in the early ’30s. We developed an internal principle to guide our use of nostalgia – if it proved something factual about the food, contributed to the authenticity of a recipe or gave background to a method of preparation, for example, history was okay. If it was just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, like, “Celebrate our 60th anniversary with us!” or “Look! Here’s a randomly selected old photo!” we didn’t do it. Nobody cares about other peoples’ anniversaries, or wants to have old family photos forced on them. Not really.

3. Is it even possible to rewrite history?

YES? Again: What if your founder was famous for living inside a wind-up toy? Jack in the Box provides a fun, fictional world that their customers buy into. Heck, Burger King’s King is essentially that, with a disturbing smile and no biz-speak. Arby’s rewrote history to be less about facts, and more about passion. On social media, the Wendy’s social media team is rewriting the “Wendy” character as a sassy, sassy comeback-queen.

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NAH. IHOP tried. They pulled a Dunkin’, years ago, to keep from being pigeon-holed as a pancake house. Guess what. They’re a pancake house. Bring in a Martian and they’ll go, “Bleep blorp this is a pancake house. An Interplanetary House of Pancakes.” The reason their recent “IHOB” campaign, where the “b” was for “burgers” instead of “pancakes,” got so much publicity is, I think, everybody saw them struggling so hard to be something new. “We’re burgers, not pancakes—so weird!”

Somehow, I think it just cemented their pancake-house status. And is that so bad? Ask Waffle House management, and the cooks at Bob Evans and Denny’s making omelets and short stacks all the livelong day. Ask The Original Pancake House and First Watch folk. Why run from breakfast? What’s the backstory of Cheesecake Factory, say, or Taco Bell? Blaze Pizza? Nobody really knows, and people like eating there. They don’t say, “Wait – I need to know more about this factory, and this so-called bell. What is “blaze” referring to, anyway?”

4. Wouldn’t it just be fun to rewrite history?

YES? Is your food or ambiance part of a rich tradition? Well, that could be fun. Johnny Rockets is almost too much fun. Almost every Mexican restaurant is some kind of fictionalized south-of-the-border concept, playing up the fiesta vibe and presenting merry mariachis either in-person or piped-in. Red Lobster has always tried to be an escape to a Nor’eastern fishing village – Maine’s license plate says “Vacationland,” after all, so maybe it’s a mini-vacation? Buca di Beppo is especially good at the charade, celebrating a caricature of mid-century Italian joints, and it’s fun to visit that false past.

NAH. Wanna bet Olive Garden would like you to feel you’re on an actual trip to Italy? It’s too big a stretch, though. And they’re not about fun, anyway, like Buca. They’re about bourgeois over-indulgence. Being a little less theme-y probably works to their advantage. They’re the kind of place you might go to casually, and not save for special occasions – God help you if your restaurant becomes “special occasion only.”

I remember in college for a few weeks I told people to call me “Chuck.” But that’s not who I was. I couldn’t convince people, even those who I was meeting for the first time, that I was anything other than a plain old everyday “Charlie.”

In the end, there’s nothing more powerful than being who you are. Still. I’ll try to remember to call you “Dunkin’,” and just leave it at that, my pink-and-orange-logoed friend.

Charlie Hopper, principal/writer of ad agency Young & Laramore, shares views on restaurant marketing at SellingEating.com, as well as in recently published books “Nuggets, Nibbles, Morsels, Crumbs: Selected Restaurant Marketing Columns from Food & Drink International,” 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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