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IHOP exterior sign

IHOP exterior sign

There’s the Beef

Brad Haley ’80, MBA ’82 hits a home run with International House of Pancakes campaign.

Brad Haley ’80, MBA ’82 hits a home run with International House of Pancakes campaign. 

When IHOP restaurants, the 60-year-old mainstay of “pancakes, pancakes, pancakes,” announced they were changing their name to IHOB to promote their new line of “burgers, burgers, burgers”—at least for summer—the Twittersphere exploded.

And veteran brand marketing guru Brad Haley,’80, MBA ’82, took a bow.

Haley is the mastermind behind the company’s brilliant publicity strategy that began with a mysterious Tweet on June 4: “For 60 pancakin’ years, we’ve been IHOP. Now, we’re flippin’ our name to IHOb. Find out what it could b on 6.11.18.”

When the b-answer was finally unveiled, an insatiably curious world erupted in humor, marketing experts heaped plaudits, and competitors trolled.

“Not really afraid of the burgers from a place that decided pancakes were too hard,” Tweeted @Wendys.

But in the hyper-competitive universe of food marketing, IHOP and Haley, who’s been the company’s chief marketing officer since last August, attention is the goal. And this campaign got plenty.

A random survey of a handful of Bay Area IHOPs reveals the new burger sales are strong (Haley said he could not comment on company data), and some food critics have seemed impressed after a taste-test.

Creative Disruption 
“I think what captured people’s imagination was the gamification to it,” said the 60-year-old Haley by phone this month from IHOP’s corporate headquarters in Glendale, California.

“We asked them questions: what would the b stand for? And people found that, I guess, too intriguing not to engage with. We had people who took it seriously, and to ridiculous places. But the fact they they were all engaged in talking about it caused it to trend on Twitter. And from that point, traditional media started calling us.”

Haley said he was pleasantly surprised by the “cultural moment.” The world felt small, and at the center of that world, was his campaign.

IHOP burgers

“I knew that to convince people of the fact that we had something great after breakfast, we had to deliver that message in kind of a disruptive way,” he said.

“And our creative strategy was quite simply stated as: ‘We’re as proud of our burgers as we are of our pancakes.’ That led to the creative idea of being so proud, we’ll change our name. That was pretty disruptive.”

But Will it Drive Business?
The campaign’s message plays right into a key company mission: increase lunch and dinner traffic to the restaurants, known mostly for their breakfast fare at almost any hour. As Haley put it: “There’s a lot of white space after breakfast.”

There’s also a lot of “latent love” surrounding IHOP, he said, “but it hasn’t been activated.” When IHOP asked people about the brand, Haley noted the common answer: “I love IHOP. I used to go there when I was a kid.” But as they become adults, they’ve found other choices.

It’s not a unique dilemma around the industry. Across virtually all segments, restaurant growth has outpaced population growth for the last several years, said Haley. As a result, there are too many restaurants fighting for a smaller segment of customers.

“We’re not getting our fair share of lunch and dinner business, which is what led to the burger idea,” he said. “Burgers are the most commonly consumed entree item for all men, women, and children in America. It seemed like an obvious opportunity.”

Haley should know.

Haley Knows Burgers
Prior to joining IHOP last summer, Haley worked almost two decades at CKE Restaurants, which owns Carl’s Jr. (and Hardee’s). Haley made headlines there, too, when in 2005, he oversaw the fast-food chain’s launch of a controversial ad campaign featuring hotel heiress Paris Hilton in a skimpy bathing suit washing a Bentley, then eating a Spicey BBQ burger. The ad ended with the words, “That’s hot,” Hilton’s catchphrase at the time.

Over the years, however, the theme of sexy, barely-clad models chowing down on Carl’s Jr. hamburgers ran out of steam with their target market of 18-to-34-year-old men, and by March of last year, the company decided to shift its focus back to food.

IHOP, of course, already offered burgers on its menu, but they weren’t very enticing, said Haley. So the company went to work, surveying customers about what made a great hamburger. The answers, not surprisingly, came back: all natural, choice quality beef, 100 percent Black Angus.

The restaurant’s head chef studied the best-tasting burgers (Haley declined to mention any by name), and after trial and error, found that the surest way to deliver a sublime taste was in a three-inch stack of ground beef—not pre-formed—but smashed into a patty. That way, the beef stays looser, and it retains more of its juice. After that, the chef came up with a blend of seasonings and created seven different kinds of burgers.

“Seriously, these burgers, even if a touch overcooked on the day I tried them, are pretty tasty,” wrote David Landsel at Food & Wine

Haley’s favorite? The Brunch Burger because “it’s got a bit of our breakfast—fried egg, bacon, cheese and a kind of hash brown cake on it. It’s a great combination of flavors.” 

Better, More Memorable Ads
In addition to expanding IHOP’s menu, Haley, who is married to Alisa Minor Haley, ’81, MBA ’86, has also pushed to make the company’s advertising more engaging and memorable.

“I thought it was kind of invisible, which is the biggest crime you can commit in advertising,” Haley said of the prior ads. “What IHOP had done for a number of years and what other chains in our segment were doing was kind of indistinguishable.”

So Haley hired a new ad firm, New York City-based Droga5, which has made humor a centerpiece of IHOP’s ads.

One television spot features two pilots obsessed with pancakes announcing to their passengers just before take-off that the plane is “cleared for pancakes;” before driving the plane over to the nearest IHOP. 


Another shows a delirious man and his horse wandering along what looks like a deserted highway. He stops in the middle of a road when he sees a fork, and picks it up. The man then struggles to decide whether he should go one direction and eat eggs and pancakes, or the other for omelettes. A homeowner watering his lawn nearby tells him that pancakes come with omelettes at IHOP, right across the street, so he can have both. 

So, what’s next from the marketing maven?

Haley said he can’t divulge anything, but after almost 40 years in the business, he’d certainly “love to catch lightning in a bottle again.”

His advice to SCU business students hoping to make it big in product marketing?

“Find the most creative partner to work with, and be brave enough to let their best work into the world,” Haley urged. “And then be the champion for it inside your own organization.”


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