It's 'Food, Not Boobs' in Carl's Jr. and Hardees' Brand Refresh

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Carl's Jr. and Hardees have dropped the teeny-bikini "babes" from their advertising in favor of a food-focused approach.

A new film from 72andSunny and directed by Hungry Man's Wayne McClammy tells the story of a company run amok at the hands of its poster child millennial CEO, the fictional Carl Hardee, Jr. (played by comedian Drew Tarver), who slouches in his office chair, gawking into VR headset along with his buddies, a shirtless dude in a hot tub and a young woman riding a mechanical bull. But the fun stops when faux founder Hardee Sr., played by Charles Esten ("Nashville," "The Postman") storms in to take back control.

Junior is forced to account for his past "mishaps" -- like his "hot chick" advertising -- depicted in a huge artwork on the wall featuring former ad star Charlotte McKinney with a pair of burgers hiding her naked bosom and an old spot playing on a TV screen starring Jessica Simpson in her Daisy Dukes.

"That's supposed to be fresh ingredients, but that lady got in there and her clothes flew off …" he mutters.

"Shut up, Jr.," the elder Hardee says. As movers clean up, replacing the McKinney picture with that of a giant burger, and Hardee Sr. dismisses the slacker friends (but keeps the bull), he turns to the camera: "When I started this company it was about one thing, pioneering a new way 'to food,' daring food, cut-no-corners food, for you, to eat with your mouth," he says. He chalks up the sexist ads of the past to junior's "wild oats," and revisits the company's historical milestones: pioneering the charbroiled burger, popularizing the drive-thru, bacon on practically everything and more. He's back, "to do what we do, what we've always done," he says.

Or to put it in Junior's words, "Food, not boobs."

The shift seems to come just at the right time, when the fast-feeder's marketing was starting to seem strikingly tone-deaf against the more socially conscious zeitgeist, with big brands such as Dove, Always, Microsoft and even GoDaddy embracing empowering messages for females. A beer company recently tapped women to reimagine the sexist messages of its past.

The company had also been swept up in negative headlines after President Trump announced that his pick for Labor Secretary was Andy Puzder, CEO of Carl's Jr. and Hardees parent CKE Restaurants. That inspired protests from, among others, CKE employees demanding a higher minimum wage rights and union rights. Mr. Puzder resigned as CEO in pursuit of the Labor Secretary post but withdrew before he could be confirmed.

But CKE Chief Marketing Officer Brad Haley said none of that drove the brand's refresh. Rather, it was inspired by a number of key insights, he said.

"The biggest one was that we do an unbelievable amount of things in a restaurant to prepare our food, we buy ingredients unlike any others, but our research showed we weren't getting credit for it," Mr. Haley said. "People didn't know about it, or we told them so long ago they forgot. 72andSunny described it well when they said we have a great food story, we just need a great storyteller."

With the changing composition of its brand's target 18-to-34 male demographic, moreover, scantily-clad ladies didn't seem like the right ones to tell the brand's tale any more. "We're not apologetic about the approach we took," Mr. Haley said. "It was very successful." But the composition of that main target now has changed, increasingly focusing on health, ingredients and quality. "We had a great story to tell them, about our all-natural products they were unaware of, and we felt like we needed a vehicle to tell them more directly and consistently than our approach of the past," he said.

And while the brand isn't saying sorry for its previous ads, the new campaign unabashedly owns up to them. "We needed a jumping-off point to explain why we're doing this, and it's also a very self-aware, self-deprecating way to do it," Mr. Haley said. "The target looks for authenticity and honesty, and when a brand's able to make fun of itself, that buys you a lot of credibility. And frankly, it was funny."

"We didn't want to all of a sudden go from controversial, provocative brand, to the boring brand," said 72andSunny Executive Creative Director and Partner Jason Norcross. "We saw that there was an opportunity to poke fun at the past and pivot into a new story."

As for the casting of new "storyteller" Carl Hardee Sr. (whose name is an amalgamation of real founders Carl Karcher and Wilber Hardee), Charles "Chip" Esten came via recommendation from the client team, Mr. Norcross said. "There's a lot of pressure when you have a spokesperson. We went on an adventure of looking at 300-plus people all over the country, and we came full circle back to Chip. He was on "Nashville," he's a country-western musician. We did a makeup test on him and aged him up. Even though he's in his 50s, he's almost too good looking, but that worked."

As for Junior, they were looking for someone who was both "lovable" and "clueless," and Mr. Tarver, a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, fit the bill, with his improv chops proving unexpectedly fruitful on set. "The original intent was that Junior would appear in the launch spot and never be seen again, but the two are such a great duo, they may very well appear together in the future," said Mr. Haley. "The father and son dynamic has great comedic potential."

Mr. Haley also said the ongoing price battle among quick-serve restaurant chains led to push toward quality-focused messages, as did the growing competition from "better burger" players. "Individually, there's no brand that's a major threat, but cumulatively, it's like the equivalent of a new medium-sized chain plopping itself into every market."

The new film, which features the tagline "Pioneers of the Great American Burger," will run online and in broadcast. 72andSunny also worked with emerging GIF artist and EDM producer Oiki on a 30-second spot featuring the new line and highlighting the restaurant's innovations of the past, such as biscuits from scratch and hand-scooped ice cream shakes. It also introduces the company's latest menu addition: all-natural chicken.

Mr. Haley added that the company will unveil significant digital and social events over the month of April.The brand refresh is accompanied by a design overhaul of the chain's logo, packaging, in-store assets and employee uniforms, all out of 72andSunny. "The goal was really to contemporize the brand, make it look more sophisticated and convey the higher quality we deliver in the food," he said.

Carl's Jr.'s redesigned packaging.
Carl's Jr.'s redesigned packaging. Credit: 72andSunny/Carl's Jr.

Privately-held CKE does not report revenue for Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, but each is a distant competitor to burger behemoths including McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. Hardee's was the 31st largest U.S. restaurant chain in 2015 with $2.16 billion in systemwide sales, while Carl's Jr. ranked 40th with nearly $1.5 billion in systemwide sales, according to Technomic. By comparison, McDonald's U.S. systemwide sales that year exceeded $35.8 billion.

The new campaign comes about a week after CKE said Jason Marker would join in April as its new CEO. Mr. Marker is moving to CKE from KFC, where he was most recently president of the U.S. business. He will take over the role that Mr. Puzder had held since 2000.

Contributing: Jessica Wohl