Benihana Cooks Up Youth Cred

Aims to create entertainment brand

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% With American youth now taking its cultural cues from the Japanese, you’d think that sales at Benihana would be surging. Think again. Despite the hot growth of Japanese cartoons, sushi, video games and Murakami handbags, the 40-year-old steakhouse chain known for its theatrical hibachi cooking seems to have gotten lost in translation.

In an attempt to refashion the brand as hip and current—that is, make the brand more "The Matrix"than Godzilla—the Miami-based chain this week is breaking an ad campaign using Japanese anime to make the musty brand(last considered au courant in the '60's) resonate to those brought up on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Nintendo, Pokemon and Hello Kitty. As a part of this effort, Benihana and its long-time ad agency Romann Group, New York, have created an integrated-entertainment marketing effort built around the TV spot, to include an original song, a music video and, later this year, a video game.

Set in the future, the spot shifts into high gear when a lovers' interlude is ostensibly interrupted by the woman's kidnapping. Her boyfriend heroically gives chase on his motorcycle through the city. In hot pursuit, he bursts into a Benihana to—surprise!—learn she's orchestrated the whole thing to get him to the restaurant for a surprise party.


"We want to evolve our brand to [appeal to] a younger generation," said Kevin Aoki, VP-marketing, Benihana, son of Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki, the charismatic entertainer who first made the chain famous. "We were focusing on the baby-boom generation and in past years we pushed our focus on young families. This is [an] effort focusing on the generation coming forward."

The 67-unit chain spent $3 million in measured media in 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. seeded the spot virally to 150,000 young male web surfers via anime News groups, Web sites and newsletters with a make-believe kid named Arthur inquiring about a video that he's obtained and where it came from.

The TV spot is just the beginning. Benihana hopes to make the female lead in the spot an icon for the brand through an original song and music video and is shopping voice talent for the song and video and talking to Viacom's VH1 and Fuse to air it. "We don't believe in hitching a brand to somebody else's star," said creative director Gad Romann. "You have to come at entertainment as content from inside the brand and you have to create your own stars and celebrities and your own environment."

As for the video game, the team is sketching out the general architecture and shopping for development partners. The idea would be to build on the kidnapping theme with a scavenger hunt on the Internet with clues from sites around the world that lead to the Benihana site for access to the game.


These ideas don't seem pie-in-the-sky considering Benihana tasted earlier success launching a record for sibling sushi brand Haru, a dance recording, distributed through street teams to clubs. The song took off after famed club DJ Junior Vasquez, among others, championed it. The song charted No. 5 on the Billboard dance charts. Haru's menu was included in the jewel box of the CDs.

The revitalization efforts for the flagship Benihana brand are timely considering systemwide sales in 2003 grew just 2.9% to $197.5 million, according to Technomic estimates, while newer Asian-influenced players like PF Chang's and Noodle Co., are drawing double-digit sales and profit gains.

Benihana has also been testing new restaurant layouts, including a central bar to help draw happy hour and social crowds who might stay for dinner.

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Sirloin, poultry, seafood and vegetables grilled "teppanyaki" style on a hibachi, continue to be menu staples, and steak still accounts for nearly half of all orders. However, 45 units feature full sushi bars and Benihana owns two sushi concepts, the aforementioned Haru, in Manhattan, and Sushi Doraku in Florida.

Malcolm Knapp, president of the namesake company that tracks the casual dining industry, agrees that the chain has grown a bit stodgy.

"They're emphasizing sushi more and I think they've addressed that they need to be more hip with the younger crowd," he said. "It's a 40-year-old concept that peaked 20 years ago. It's time for them to regain their luster and they're doing a number of elements, which is smart, as opposed to doing one thing."

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