Carl’s Jr. Tries to Go After the Young, and Hungry, Skateboarding Fan
The New York Times
March 17, 2009
WHERE are all the young men?
That has been the cry of fast-food chains in the last few years, as teenage boys have turned away from television and radio to nontraditional media.
The chains have been outdoing themselves trying to get their attention. This winter, Burger King ran a campaign offering a free Whopper if people delisted 10 of their friends on Facebook. (Burger King decided to drop the campaign after Facebook asked it to stop notifying people that they had been de-friended.) Jack in the Box is creating something called GutterBowl leagues, in which bowlers with the lowest scores are rewarded with burgers.
Last summer, McDonald’s asked consumers to submit MySpace hip-hop, rap and country tracks updating the “Two all-beef patties” jingle (and, it turned out, selected a finalist who had a criminal record — for holding up a McDonald’s as a teenager).
Carl’s Jr. has been one of the most aggressive in going after the young male market.
It is a smaller fast-food chain, with about 1,200 restaurants concentrated in the western United States. That is a small fraction of Burger King’s 11,100 restaurants worldwide, and McDonald’s 30,000 restaurants.
So it tries to be a bit outlandish. Its 2005 television ad showing Paris Hilton washing a car, writhing in suds and eating a giant burger caused a ruckus; Carl’s Jr. put an extended version online and, when its servers overloaded, quickly issued a press release declaring “Paris was too hot for our servers.”
Now, Carl’s Jr. is working with the skateboarding star Rob Dyrdek, including sponsoring a skate park in downtown Los Angeles, putting Mr. Dyrdek’s photograph on its cups, and being featured on “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory,” Mr. Dyrdek’s MTV show. “I can’t do things where I’m going to get lost in the clutter and out-advertised,” said Andrew F. Puzder, the chief executive of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr.
“We decided the people we wanted to target were young, hungry guys,” Mr. Puzder said in an interview. “You set your target at a group that is cool or appealing and you get a much broader scope of people. We target hungry guys, and we get young kids that want to be young hungry guys,” along with the young men’s girlfriends, friends and parents, he said.
But what works with young men is constantly changing, meaning companies trying to reach them have to experiment. Plain old television or radio ads alone do not give brands a cutting-edge credibility. “Consumers, especially young male consumers, get fatigued when they see the same commercial over and over and over again in their favorite TV show,” said Matt Britton, the chief executive of Mr. Youth, a marketing agency that focuses on reaching teenagers and young adults. “If brands want to effectively reach this demographic, they do need to resort to alternative measures.”
But in a media landscape where most clients are reducing experimental budgets — and advertising budgets in general — that means chains must find very cheap experiments.That is the strategy at Carl’s Jr., at least.
“We like to be able to test things, to see how they work, and we can do so at a very reasonable price point,” said Jason Meil, executive vice president and managing director of the innovations group at Initiative, media agency for Carl’s Jr. “There are things that we do that, even though they don’t specifically hit a huge amount of people through the campaigns, the press we can generate from it and the fact that we do things first can generate buzz.”
Initiative, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies, has tried a long list of projects for Carl’s Jr. in the last few years: It placed banner ads for the chain on Wi-Fi-enabled digital picture frames. It created a three-dimensional version of the Carl’s Jr. Web site using the service ExitReality, which uses a plug-in to turn regular sites into 3-D ones.
When the company introduced the Monster Breakfast Sandwich last summer, Initiative arranged for television stations running “The Simpsons” in late-night syndication to broadcast a week of Halloween episodes.
And last month for Valentine’s Day, Initiative created a radio promotion that allowed listeners to call in to win a steak dinner date, with limousine service and concert tickets — of course, the dinner was not a porterhouse, but a steak sandwich at Carl’s Jr.
“It’s an experiment,” said Marc Simons, a manager in the innovations group of Initiative. “We’re working with the client to make sure they’re on the bleeding edge of all these new technologies that are coming through, because in two, three, four, five years, digital picture frames could be a mass medium.”
The experiment with Mr. Dyrdek incorporates several media, and relatively cheaply.
“Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory,” on MTV, is about the star’s business endeavors, including endorsements and his foundation that builds skate parks in urban areas. (Mr. Dyrdek first gained MTV fame with “Rob and Big,” a reality show about Mr. Dyrdek and his bodyguard.)
Mr. Puzder will appear on an episode of “Fantasy Factory” scheduled to be shown later this month. In the episode, Mr. Puzder and Mr. Dyrdek strike a deal: Mr. Puzder offers a Carl’s Jr. donation to the Los Angeles skate park, and Mr. Dyrdek agrees to promote Carl’s Jr. in return.
“I want to show there’s corporate companies that will help skateboarding, as opposed to just use it for demographics,” Mr. Dyrdek said. “It’s important to me, if I’m going to go out and step into the corporate zone, to make sure I utilize it in a proper way.”
The Carl’s Jr. mascot, a large yellow star, is built into the design of the skate park, which opened in February.
And Mr. Dyrdek has posted videos on YouTube, showing stunts of him skating in a Carl’s Jr. franchise, and skating dressed in the chain’s Happy Star mascot costume. The videos are popular by YouTube standards — the one in costume has almost 500,000 views and 1,000 comments.
The restaurant sold out of 3.5 million Rob Dyrdek cups in a little more than a month. “There’s a lot of bang for the buck in this stuff,” Mr. Puzder said. “It’s not as expensive as running an ad to do something with Rob — we contribute to his skate park, and you get a lot of free media from that.”
Mr. Puzder said that when “you can’t be the big national brand, you kind of got to be the cool brand for the skateboarders.”