International House of Brand mistakes

Last week, restaurant chain IHOP (fully known as “International House of Pancakes”) teased a name change. They’re going to flip the “P” and become IHOb. But what does the “b” stand for? Breakfast? Biscuits? Blockchain? Belly aches?

On Monday we learned it stands for “burgers”. It’s a temporary name change to promote their new Ultimate Steakburgers. And I think it’s pretty dumb.

IHOP has a well-known brand. They’ve sold non-breakfast-food for as long as I’ve been aware of them, but — as the name suggests — breakfast food is their bread and butter. They got a lot of free publicity out of this stunt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was beneficial. The reaction I’ve seen has mostly been negative, including this scathing take:

You can get a burger in just about any restaurant in America. Even a temporary abuse of the brand to go after a crowded space seems cruel to a brand that has served so well. As The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding points out, products aren’t sold anymore, they’re bought. And they’re bought because of branding. A brand can be a company’s most valued asset.

Maybe this works out for them, but I expect that it doesn’t give IHO* any long-term benefit. What would be more interesting to me is dropping the non-breakfast menu entirely. There’s something to be said for simple food menus. The more items on the menu, the less often they get made. This means less skill in that recipe for the cooks and more ingredients that need to be stocked (and potentially sit for a while). With a simple menu, you can do a few things really well.

McDonald’s has learned this lesson over and over again over the years. Every time they expand their menu, quality and customer satisfaction seem to go down. So they simplify the menu a bit for a little while, until it’s time to chase a new customer segment. In comparison, Chick-Fil-A has a relatively small menu that they execute well. Restaurants don’t need to be everything to everyone, and I think there’s space for a “we only serve breakfast, you’ll just have to like it” chain. Let’s face it: few things are as popular as breakfast foods at not-breakfast times.

But if IHO* is really serious about competing in a crowded burger space, there are better ways to go about it. “Burgers are like pancakes made of meat!” is a slogan that just came to mind. It’s not great, but it could be worked on. Sure, it might get less attention than changing the name to “IHOb”, but attention doesn’t necessarily mean increased sales. Sometimes it’s not how many people you reach, but which people you reach and what message you reach them with.

But at least other brands are having fun:

You’re an SEO company

Business owners, regardless of their industry, often view themselves in terms of what their business does. “We’re a bookstore, a coffee shop, a web design company,” or whatever goods or services that customers pay money for. But a recent conversation made me realize that most small businesses in a mature market are really a search engine optimization (SEO) company.

Okay, there are a few caveats here. I’m thinking of mature markets as fields where there are many small or small-ish players that are attempting to serve a large number of users. Think generally of the early and late majority sections of the technology adoption life cycle. Ride sharing, for example, is out of scope. It’s pretty solidly in the middle of the bell curve, but it has three players: Uber, Lyft, and everyone else.

The subject of the conversation was a VPN service. A friend was using VPN software and observed that it would be easy to share his server with others for a fee. All the other challenges of running a business aside, I immediately asked what his differentiation is.

VPN services may not be mainstream exactly, but the market is mainstream enough. And there are a lot of players with no one particularly dominant. So how does a new entry set itself apart? There’s a little bit of room to differentiate on price, location, service, etc, but not much. So the best way to differentiate and get new customers is to be better at search engine optimization than the rest of the field.

In essence, making a business successful requires skills entirely unrelated to the business itself. When you can’t easily differentiate your product, you have to differentiate your marketing.

Book review: Inside the Tornado

Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is perhaps the single most influential technology marketing book. When I first read it a few years ago, everything in it made sense and it gave me a better feel for where my company was (spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily where we thought we were). So when several people recommended Inside the Tornadoa sequel of sorts – I was ready to dig in and love it.

But I didn’t love it. It’s not because Moore is wrong. I don’t claim to know enough to assert that, and in fact I think he’s probably right on the whole. My dislike for the book instead is a matter of literary and ethical concerns.

The literary concern is what struck me first, so I’ll start there. Whereas the metaphor in Chasm is very straightforward, Tornado is a mess. You start in the bowling alley and then a tornado develops and eventually you end up on Main Street. Also, you want to be a gorilla or maybe a chimpanzee, but probably not a monkey. In fairness to Mr. Moore, some of this is because the concepts he tried to communicate became more complex in Tornado. Instead of the broad concepts of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, he focuses on the more intricate motions that happen on a smaller scale. As a meteorologist, I can appreciate this. Nonetheless, the roughness of the metaphor distracted me from the message of the book.

I’m also not particularly keen on what Moore tells us we must do to achieve dominance in the market. “To hell with quality or what your customer wants” may be the best way to achieve the market position you want when conditions are favorable to you. That doesn’t mean it’s what I want to do. Reading this book made me think of Don McLean’s third-most popular song: “if winning is what matters I respect the ones who fail.”

I suppose it may be a disconnect between my goals and what Moore assumes my goals are. Although I am a very competitive person, I am not interested in winning for winning’s sake. I want to do work that makes the world better, and if we’re in second or third place, that just means that others are also making the world a better place. That doesn’t seem like losing to me.

Inside the Tornado is one of those books that every technology marketer should read. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it.

April Foolishness

As should surprise no one, the Internet loves April Fools’ Day. The Internet also hates April Fools’ Day. Although it has apparently been celebrated for centuries, only in recent years have corporate marketing departments gotten into the act with such gusto. As a result, every web posting must be viewed with suspicion on April 1.

Some people are of the opinion that this corporate foolery is played out. Even Google, a perpetual home-run-hitter, had a big strikeout this year. A few hours into the “mic drop” feature, it was pulled from GMail after users complained of problems when they accidentally triggered it. Will this be the end of Google’s April Fools efforts? I’m sure it won’t be, but it may cause them to be more conservative next year. Will that mean it ends up not being funny? Quite possibly.

Not everyone had a bad day, though. The election insurance commercial from Esurance was brilliant. Virginia Commonwealth University had an amusing video about its “Tats, not SATs” policy. But the winner has to be the adult video website Pornhub, which became “Cornhub” for the day.

These examples show what a good corporate April Fools’ Day joke is like. Like Hippocrates, first do no harm. Funny videos or blog posts are good strategy because your users can’t do much more than not get the joke. Anything that involves actual functionality should only be used with extreme caution. Make it safe.

Next, the post should be clearly fake. This is tough to do because you want your joke to have the appearance of being serious while still having that air of self-awareness. Think of it like a Saturday Night Live sketch. Everyone knows it’s over the top and the actors play to that, but as soon as they crack a smile, it loses something. (As an aside, that’s why I’m not a Jimmy Fallon fan.) The point is your want people laughing at your joke, not at people who didn’t get it.

Last, and most importantly, it must be funny. If it’s not funny, stop. Find something else to do. Don’t try to be funny and then be unfunny because it’s painful for everyone. The Verge has a post ranking some of this year’s jokes.