Jacked up

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Times are good at jack in the box. That once would have seemed far-fetched. In early 1993, a food-safety disaster struck the fast-food marketer. Ground beef contaminated with E. coli bacteria sickened hundreds of patrons in Washington state; four children died. Sales plunged. The future seemed bleak. Today, Jack in the Box is proof calamities can be overcome.

After a major PR effort built around public apologies, high-profile efforts to embrace new food safety standards, compensation to victims and other efforts to repair the breach with consumers, Jack in the Box began sorting out the marketing strategy that would lead to its revival. Within four years, Advertisng Age was reporting Jack was "back." Last week, it basked in its 24th consecutive quarter of same-store sales growth.

Thankfully, few marketers face the rebuilding job that confronted Jack in the Box. But it forced the chain's marketing executives to embrace ideas that might not have survived in calmer corporate times. Chief among them was the decision to reclaim its "Jack" symbol, a discarded clown figure aimed at kids, and give him new life as the irreverent "CEO" of the company-a spokesman that delivers food quality messages while poking fun at the biggies of the burger business.

Management commitment to the crucial details of running a quality operation was essential to this Jack in the Box story, but the advertising was, and is, still a key ingredient in the new face the marketer presents to its target customers. That might not have happened without the 1993 crisis to fuel change and some calculated marketing risk-taking.

As Jack in the Box Chairman Bob Nugent put it: "While [the food contamination disaster] was a tragic thing, a lot of good things came out of it. Also what came out was the [corporate culture] that exists today that otherwise wouldn't have existed."

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