Dine Equity, the parent company of IHOP, should write thank you letters to Wendy’s, Burger King, and everybody else who made fun of the “IHOB” stunt that's went viral these past few days.
They all helped give lots of attention to what was essentially a cute product launch campaign for new burger items on IHOP’s menu. All IHOP did was a little social media tease on changing one letter in their name, and the world went crazy, far beyond the free pancakes they give away every year on National Pancake Day.
Media attention turned serious when The New York Times noted that even IHOP itself expressed surprise at how the campaign took off. The virality reached such a crescendo of mystery, spoofery, and parody around wondering what that “b” was that one Cleveland web site posted a story: “Don’t Let The IHOP Name Change Distract You From The End of Net Neutrality, Which Went Into Effect Today.”
There is nothing spectacular or even that creative about “changing” the last letter in your company name. However, this is a case of a humdrum PR stunt enabled by the press themselves and IHOP’s rivals into a monster that actually resembles the overheated online coverage of politics and celebrities.
Every once in a while, the press treats obvious PR stunts like following world business leaders meeting at Sun Valley. The most egregious example was in 2011, when Abercrombie + Fitch offered money to “Jersey Shore” cast member Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino never to wear its clothes on the program. This provoked serious industry articles in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, CNN, Reuters, The Los Angeles Times, and others, positioning it as if it was the equivalent of the CEO stepping down.
When Larry Flynt annually offers a million dollars for prominent politicians to pose nude in Hustler (wink wink), there aren’t enough pixels on the Internet to capture all the press coverage it gets.
IHOP’s stunt is nothing remotely close to the cleverness of either of those two. Their stunt may have floated under the radar until Wendy’s, Burger King and Denny’s decided to bring them far more attention than it deserved – and it significantly boomeranged for those competitors. As any good public relations or ad sales professional knows: the more you talk about your rivals, the more oxygen you give their fire.
The snarky pile-on from Wendy’s, Burger King, Chili’s, Checkers and Rally’s, Denny’s, and Whataburger led to a slew of breathless lemming-like articles giving more attention to the new burger than IHOP ever imagined in its media plan. The key headline word here is “slam” – something usually reserved for web tabloid coverage of politicians and celebrities. Business Insider: “Wendy’s slams IHOP for its ‘IHOb” burger rebrand.” New York Daily News: “Wendy’s, White Castle, and other fast food chains slam “IHob’ over lame name change.”
All that “slamming” has probably created the best-known burger launch in years.
Before Dine Equity writes those thank you notes to its rivals, it now has to find a way to explain to the public that the name change was a stunt. IHOP should donate the letter “b” to Wendy’s in their note, explaining that the letter “b” now stands for “backfired.”
Drew Kerr is president and founder of Four Corners Communications