It’s almost become synonymous with the brand. Remember the Paris Hilton ad from 2005? Or Kate Upton? How about Sara Underwood and Emily Ratajkowski? Hannah Ferguson? You get the idea. When you think of Carl’s Jr. advertising over the past decade, the babes outshine the burgers. Now the brand wants to change that.
In its newest brand campaign, by agency 72andSunny, Carl’s Jr. is explicitly transparent about the shift, with Carl Hardee Sr. returning to run the company after letting Carl Jr. sow his wild ad oats for long enough. Of course, Carl Hardee Sr. isn’t a real person–an amalgamation of original founders Carl Karcher and Wilbur Hardee–but the point is clear: The grown-ups are running the brand again. Why? In a market where players like Shake Shack and Five Guys are seen as “better burger” joints, Carls’ Jr. wanted to take the focus away from the bikinis and back on the burger that made the company succeed in the first place.
Brad Haley, chief marketing officer of Carl’s Jr parent company CKE Restaurants says that there were some significant facts being lost on consumers too mesmerized by the…uh, presentation. His assignment to 72andSunny was to find a way to fix that.
“While the ‘bikinis and burgers’ approach did a lot to make eating fast-food burger seem sexy–which was a tall order–we needed an advertising vehicle that could allow us to tell our very compelling, but more rational, food quality story in an entertaining way,” says Haley. “The creative brief was to find a way to more directly and consistently communicate the food quality story that we have, but for which we weren’t getting credit.”
That includes things like using 100% Black Angus beef and grass-fed, all-natural beef in their burgers, using all-natural chicken breast fillets with no antibiotics ever, making biscuits from scratch every morning, hand-breading chicken tenders, and hand-scooping the ice cream shakes. “Those are things that no other QSR chain does, collectively, and few other restaurants of any kind do,” says Haley.
72andSunny executive creative director and partner Jason Norcross says that while the marketing has been provocative , created a fair amount of controversy, and drove sales for Carl’s Jr.’s business for a long time, lately it wasn’t working as well. The brand needed to move on and do something to better reflect its ambitions. And in pivoting to a new tone, the agency thought that acknowledging the past in a fun, self-aware way (read: The ad still has its share of half-naked women) could help bring some energy and attitude to the campaign. And Carl Jr isn’t the only one being replaced at the company. CKE will be appointing a new CEO to replace Andy Puzder, who signed off on the campaign before his bid to become President Trump’s Labor Secretary failed.
“Controversial marketing worked for CKE’s business for a long time, but ultimately the girls and boobs were overshadowing the product,” says Norcross, whose agency also redesigned the fast feeder’s packaging, in-store menus, employee uniforms, and company logo. “Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s weren’t getting credit for their food. Plus, when we spoke to customers, primarily young guys, their attitude was, ‘Yep, got it. Girls. Seen it before. What do girls have to do with you guys again?’ So you could say this is part of a larger trend of people being more interested in what brands are all about. But really, I think it is more about the advertising growing stale. It became familiar, which, on top of it all, distracted from the products.”