Hardee’s: Back to Its Roots, Nationally: Confusion Reigns in Fast-Food Category

CHICAGO – Through the 1970s, Hardee’s was to fast food what Coors was to beer: not available everywhere, but more genuin…The message it’s sent with its current $75-million agency review, after dumping Ogilvy & Mather/N.Y., its agency of eight years, is that it now wants to be like Wal-Mart: a national power that is the sum of its small-town strengths.One question is whether Hardee’s and the new ‘national’ agency it selects finally can develop an image befitting those strengths, something it has never had. The other question is whether Hardee’s decision to split creative and media while decentralizing power is a mistake that already may have doomed its effort to establish brand cohesion.Indeed, many of the agencies with solid creative reputations that had been expected to scramble after the Hardee’s assignment declined to pursue it. Some, such as Chicago shops Bayer Bess Vanderwarker and Hal Riney & Partners, and Ross Roy/Bloomfield Hills, Mich., decided to stick with their existing, if smaller, restaurant clients. Others, like Fallon McElligott and Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, said they were too busy with other pitches, or new business, or something.Still others voiced confusion about the review itself, being handled by William Weilbacher of Bismark Consulting. Some agency execs said they thought the initial questionnaire made the assignment sound like a project or like both a creative and media assignment.Weilbacher, who was not available to be interviewed for this story, has insisted from the start that Hardee’s is looking for a creative agency of record that can supply the fresh creative approach franchisees want. Those getting a shot at the task are Deutsch/Dworin, Lowe & Partners and TBWA, all New York; and Tatham Euro RSCG. The Martin Agency, Richmond, Va.; McKinney & Silver, Raleigh, N.C.; and O&M/Chicago were considered but cut.But nothing these days in the fast-food world seems to be clear and concise and secure and building. The insecurity is shown simply by the fact that nearly $300 million in fast-food billings is now in review following last week’s announcement that Burger King was putting its domestic account up for grabs, currently handled by D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. In announcing that review, Burger King executive vp/worldwide marketing Sidney Feltenstein said BK, like Hardee’s, is looking for a campaign that will provide a ‘fresh approach to our back-to-basics philosophy.’ Feltenstein added that Burger King is ‘concentrating on selling great tasting food at superior everyday value,’ rather than, one supposes, selling everyday-tasting food at a superior price.And so it is with most of the fast-food industry: a blur of lower-price messages and, with few exceptions, an abandonment of unique brand image.What Hardee’s was built on was less an image than a mystique that was partly earned by thick, juicy, flame-broiled burgers, fresh biscuit breakfasts and friendly service, and partly backlash against the omnipresence and mechanical efficiency of McDonald’s.The chain’s whole aura evoked the banjo twangs from Deliverance. Headquartered in decidedly unhip Rocky Mount, N.C., Hardee’s Food Systems built stores and customer loyalty in downscale markets in the South and Upper Midwest – places that McDonald’s wouldn’t touch – but the kind of markets where Wal-Mart flourished. And it kept its head down during the ‘Burger Wars’ of the early 1980s, when Burger King, McDonald’s and Wendy’s took on each other in expensive network TV battles.Dumb like the proverbial fox, Hardee’s stayed regional and stayed off the networks, and the strategy worked. When McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s ran out of room in the big markets and had to look for sales in smaller markets, Hardee’s already was there, and strong. Much is made of how McDonald’s outspends Hardee’s by better than five to one in its total ad budget. But Hardee’s has learned to concentrate: Its spot TV bill last year was behind Big Mac’s but equivalent to Burger King, Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, although Hardee’s – unlike the others – has no presence west of the Rockies. By the late 1980s, Hardee’s itself was the big No. 3 among burger chains, passing Wendy’s. Last year, systemwide sales topped $4 billion. Like the Beverly Hillbillies, Hardee’s may be unsophisticated, but it’s rich.In the late 1980s, ceo Bill Prather and marketing chief Gary Langstaff moved to centralize and leverage the strength it gained from those small towns. It increased advertising and promotions and broadened the menu.Now Hardee’s is reversing course, going back to its roots. Capping a decentralization shift begun last year, executive vp/marketing Jerry Gramaglia in August announced the splitting of responsibility for creative and media planning for its approximately $75-million account. The national agency will handle creative only; Hardee’s five regional agencies will handle all media planning and buying.That sealed the split with O&M, which walked away from the business it has handled since succeeding BBDO/N.Y. in 1985. O&M said it wasn’t interested in handling just the creative. For its part, Hardee’s never said it was interested in having O&M continue in that role, anyway.O&M defended the account once before, in 1991, when then-evp/marketing Michael Simpson pitted the agency against Ayer, Chiat/Day and J. Walter Thompson in a creative shoot-out. O&M’s team, headed by Julian Clopet, delivered its presentation from behind the counter of a Hardee’s unit which the agency had assembled – complete right down to the fryers, soft-drink spigots and a drive-through window – in the presentation room. Agency sources say Simpson, a Kellogg and PepsiCo veteran with no fast-food and little marketing experience, was so impressed by the show and O&M’s understanding of the nuts and bolts of Hardee’s operations that he couldn’t have fired the agency if he had wanted to. And insiders say he wanted to, but had been convinced by franchisees to let O&M defend its turf.While it kept the business, O&M presented a campaign that never saw the light of day. Said one agency source, ‘It went to the heart of Hardee’s positioning. It was distinctive, and would have owned the category.’ But Simpson nixed it.Hardee’s reliance on vague, corny campaign themes has been one of the problems the new national agency will have to overcome. Current advertising has country singer Hank Williams Jr. ask, ‘Are You ready for some real food?’ It’s a ripoff of the intro ABC used for Monday Night Football for several years, but past tags have been little more imaginative: ‘Just everything,’ ‘All kinds of good stuff,’ and ‘We’re out to win you over’ kept the hayseed persona without delivering much of a message.’Hardee’s has been very progressive in product development, and they market their menu well. They’ve done well in markets where they concentrate, but their image hasn’t been focused,’ said Ron Paul, who heads Chicago restaurant consultancy Technomic Inc. ‘They don’t have the clear positioning of a McDonald’s.’A focused image is what some franchisees say they want from a new national agency. ‘I’d like to see some fresh, exciting commercials and a whole new campaign,’ said Kris Thomas, marketing manager with Doro Inc., a regional Hardee’s franchisee in Eau Claire, Wis. ‘The hometown image is important for us. Small towns are where we are, and our customers expect that. But I think we’re all tired of the ‘Real Food’ campaign. Especially the music.’Hardee’s drive to refocus itself will be helped by its finally having gotten past one of the worst marketing gaffes of the decade: its botched acquisition of the 600-store Roy Rogers fast-food chain from Marriott in 1990. A year after the buy, Hardee’s decided to convert Roy Rogers units in Washington/Baltimore, a key market for both chains. New outside signage proclaimed them Hardee’s with Roy Rogers chicken (the chain’s signature menu item). Earle Palmer Brown, Bethesda, Md., was booted as Roy’s agency and the account consolidated at O&M.Within a year, research showed Roy’s loyal customers hated the change and were going elsewhere in droves. In an embarrassing turnaround, the stores were rebranded Roy Rogers with Hardee’s breakfast. Responsibility for Roy Rogers was pulled back from O&M and given to Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor/N.Y. But only a few months later, Roy Rogers was back were it started, with EPB.That bungling gave Hardee’s a reputation for indecisive and inept management, despite its sales success. Critics of Gramaglia’s decision to split creative and media buying contend it’s another, similar mistake.’For years, the only marketing cohesiveness Hardee’s has had has come from O&M. Those people were holding it together, and it’s a shame how they’ve been yanked around,’ said Langstaff, who left Hardee’s in 1989 to take over marketing at Burger King. He now is a consultant, in Colorado.’I don’t think Hardee’s understands the implications of this move,’ he said. ‘You go back to having local fiefdoms, with franchisees deciding what they want the brand to be. Well, franchisees are most interested in getting butts in the door. What you end up with is Dairy Queen (with an array of marketing messages).’You have a national agency with responsibility for maybe a $6-million production budget and power over little else but the tagging of regionalized versions. If everyone in a system is going to do their own creative, then Katie bar the door,’ said Langstaff. ‘No wonder agencies weren’t interested.’Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)