Hardee's agency move marks heartland focus

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A big-city agency just didn't work for Hardee's Food Systems, the ailing burger chain based in Rocky Mount, N.C.

After handing national creative duties for its $100 million account to two different agencies in the past two years--Angotti, Thomas, Hedge, New York, and then Leap Partnership, Chicago--the restaurant chain has tapped John-son/Ukropina Creative Marketing, a small shop in Irvine, Calif., to handle its advertising.

The win is huge for John-son/Ukropina, which has bitten off increasingly larger chunks of business from Hardee's parent, CKE Restaurants, in the past several years.

'PRACTICAL TALENTS'

"They have not only strategic, but practical talents," said Robert Wisely, exec VP-marketing for CKE. "They know what happens at the point of sale."

Selecting another agency reflects a desire on the part of Hardee's to better target its core customers in America's heartland, said Mr. Wisely. The fourth-largest burger chain operates primarily in the Southeast and Midwest. Some 30% of its units are in towns with populations of less than 3,000.

"Your urban kind of advertising, its look, tone, feel and manner, is not going to resonate with these people," he said.

The chain, known for its breakfast biscuits and popular with the after-church crowd on Sundays, was acquired in 1997 by CKE, parent of Carl's Jr., a California-based chain.

The deal has proved controversial on Wall Street, with CKE's once high-flying stock now trading near 52-week lows of about $6 per share. The poor performance is attributed in part to the unexpectedly bad condition of many Hardee's outlets and their continuing sales declines.

Johnson/Ukropina has been the promotional and merchandising agency for Carl's Jr. for the past six years. It recently took on added work connected to the conversion of tired Hardee's restaurants to a new format called Star Hardee's.

The shop won the account without a review based on ad concepts it presented to Hardee's officials and franchisees at the company's request, Mr. Wisely said.

"It's such a great brand," said agency partner Carolyn Johnson. "In a lot of their markets, they were the first fast-food that came to town. They were the landscape. . . . We need to make more of a connection between Hardee's and their customers."

The shop's first work is set to break in March, and will include spot TV, radio and print, said Mr. Wisely, who declined to disclose many details about the new approach.

4 NEW SPOTS

In the meantime, the chain is about to break four TV spots featuring Nascar drivers Mark Martin and Jeff Burton. Hardee's is in the second year of a three-year deal with the drivers, and hasn't yet taken enough advantage of the sponsorship , Mr. Wisely noted.

The company will not use its star icon as a character in future ads, but will use the star as a brand symbol, he said. The star is the symbol for Carl's Jr.

The chain's two regional agencies, Jordan Associates, Oklahoma City, and Lewis Advertising, Rocky Mount, retain their duties for local media buying and print and radio advertising, respectively.

Copyright December 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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