Hooters CMO Mike McNeil on Steinem, Sex Appeal and the American Way

Long-Serving Exec Also Discusses Challenge of Taking a Polarizing Brand Global

By Published on .

CMO turnover may be a big problem for a lot of companies, but not at restaurant chain Hooters. Mike McNeil has been leading marketing there for more than 20 years, and the Tennessee native and Vanderbilt MBA-toting exec, who says the job "keeps you young," isn't planning on leaving anytime soon.

In his position, Mr. McNeil spends less time worrying about advertising than he does making sure the chain stays true to its brand, which is summed up by the following statement on its website: "Sex appeal is legal and it sells."

Hooters uses a small media shop in Knoxville, Tenn., MP Media & Promotions, for media duties, but handles most creative in-house. Mr. McNeil wouldn't put a number on the company's ad budget, but noted that it's not the sort that "will lend to Super Bowl spots anytime soon." With what he claims is 90% brand awareness -- around the world, people associate the Hooters girl and its hot wings and burgers with what America is really about, he says -- entertainment brands are constantly coming to him. For example, the producers of the Denzel Washington movie "Unstoppable" came to the restaurant chain with the idea that the lead characters' daughters would work in a Hooters, and the other girls on the set you saw were really Hooters girls. Letterman, Leno, and other TV shows call up the restaurant regularly too, Mr. McNeil said. "We've developed a good reputation within the entertainment industry that we're going to have great looking gals show up on time, with great attitudes."

Hooters' unsuccessful brand extensions (the Hooters airline) aren't deterring it from trying new things (Mr. McNeil is one of about 25,000 folks who have a Hooters MasterCard in their wallets). The next experiment? Hooters hot sauce, coming soon to a grocery aisle near you.

Mike McNeil with Hooters girls
Mike McNeil with Hooters girls

Mr. McNeil phoned Ad Age last week from his office in Atlanta, where HOA Restaurant Group, the operator and franchiser of Hooters' 455 locations across the U.S. and on six continents, is located. We talked about how good wings are just as important as good-looking girls, and he shared that his favorite part of the job is defending the brand from people like feminist activist Gloria Steinem.

Ad Age : Last week Gloria Steinem, during a press junket with reporters to promote her new HBO documentary, told reporters that she has a major problem with Hooters. She also tossed out this accusation about your restaurants: "They actually make women have breast implants to work there, and they should be sued." Is that true? And either way, how does such a perception impact your brand?

Mr. McNeil: It's not true. We do not require them to do that . We don't have those types of physical requirements -- as we said in a statement to her, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes -- and certainly don't have any sort of policy that requires plastic surgery or anything like that . She just had her facts wrong. People say negative things about Hooters all the time ... but the thing is that every time someone criticizes us, our fans come to our defense. At least the brand is active in people's minds. That may be part of why we've been successful for three decades.

Ad Age : That said, you do make sure that the servers who are representing your brand fit a certain mold, right?

Mr. McNeil: Our image of the Hooters girl is female, beautiful, and vivacious and outgoing. We have a legal right to hire the best available candidates that fit that bill.

Ad Age : You make no bones about the fact that sex appeal is at the crux of your marketing strategy. But you're a global brand, so how do you operate knowing that many countries have very conservative attitudes towards sex around the world? Does the restaurant adapt to the local environment or do you just accept there are some places where you're not going to be able to open?

Mr. McNeil: Here's what I think the international appeal is : Hooters is identified as an all-American brand. I think around the world there is still very much a sentiment of embracing American culture, if not our politics. Because we are so closely identified with pop culture, that 's where the appeal lies at the international level. If you went into a Hooters restaurant in Tokyo or Australia or Germany or South Africa or Ontario or Mexico City, you would walk into that restaurant, and you'd know you're in a Hooters. There is slight alteration to menus [depending on the region]. In South America you have to have some more chargrilled meats and in Asia some more rice and seafood dishes. But there's still great wings and burgers, and all our servers still wear the orange shorts and white tank tops. The girls may look a little different in each place, too. The restaurants in China have beautiful Chinese women, and the [servers] in Germany tend to have blond hair and blue eyes. It's definitely still based on sex appeal, but it has a local flair to it. There probably are places where we're limited. We're not in any Arab countries yet. We've talked to a group about opening in Dubai and there's some discussion going on right now about that . But Dubai is sort of like the Las Vegas of the Arab world and there's a different standard that applies there. We may be restricted in some places [in terms of international growth]. But Asia, North and South America, Europe, South Africa -- their ideas of female sex appeal and beauty and fashion are fairly consistent with ours.

Ad Age : The Hooters brand has dabbled in a lot of brand extensions, from credit cards to casinos and a short-lived airline venture. Do you think that there's a danger in stretching the brand too far from restaurants and into areas that don't jibe with what your consumer understands the brand to be?

Mr. McNeil: The two particular biggest things that have struggled are the airline and the casino. But no airline is making money and nobody is successful in that arena. It's a game of who can lose the least. All would agree it was a misguided attempt and what was really bad about it was that that we did it ourselves; it wasn't with a proven airline company. With the Las Vegas casino... travel is way off [due to the recession]. I'm not sure you can point to those two things and say the brand is limited. What we will tend to look at going forward is licensing opportunities where we can take the brand into new areas. One area would be in the food-licensing arena, so that we can make Hooters wings, fried pickles and hot sauces available in grocery stores to prep at home. We have had other successes too. The calendar and the magazine are tied directly to the Hooters girls and those have been successful for us, and the merchandise in-store has been very profitable. People don't mind wearing a piece of clothing that has a trademark on it, and I think people will look in the grocery stores for our brand too. There's a lot things I think we can do with our brand.

Ad Age : You have been leading the marketing for Hooters for nearly two decades, which makes you a serious anomaly. What do you think about the high turnover in the CMO suite at most companies today?

Mr. McNeil: We've done a great job of building the brand, and one of the reasons we've been able to do it is because of a continuity there. Our brand awareness is over 90%. We're up there with consumer products like Coca-Cola and McDonald's, and it's a lot higher than chains that are much bigger than us, like Buffalo Wild Wings, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse. People [in marketing roles] leave because of an impatience. Too often the marketing folks get credit for things they shouldn't credit for, and they get blamed for things they shouldn't get credit for. At the end of the day, this is a job that 's about the customer experience; advertising and marketing certainly plays a role but it is not the only role. What happens in the dining experience is far more important.

Ad Age : You have adopted the business motto, "You can sell the sizzle, but you have to deliver the steak." What does that mean to you?

Mr. McNeil: We have an executive chef, Scott Kinsey, and we take pride in our food and put a lot of effort into that . But there are a lot of places out there with great food, and what makes Hooters unique is the element of sex appeal that the girls bring. With a name like Hooters you have to embrace the brand. Yes, we have acknowledged that "hooters" is a folksy, slang expression for a portion of the female anatomy, but we like to think that we've made the name stand for a lot more than that , including food and fun. You have to embrace who you are. I think one of the worst mistakes you can make in business is to try to be all things to all people. We accept the fact that there's going to be a segment of consumers out there that are going to reject us out of hand, and we're okay with that because there's enough people that accept us. The thing about our concept is it's polarizing; it's not a neutral situation. Yes, there are people who really, really dislike us, but there's a lot of affinity for our brand among our guests.

Ad Age : What's the best part of being the CMO of Hooters?

Mr. McNeil: I do very much enjoy my job. It's a concept that keeps you young and it's something I've enjoyed making my life's work. One thing I enjoy the most about it is the opportunity to be a defender for the concept -- like with the Gloria Steinem thing -- and say "Hey, wait a minute, what you're saying about our brand is not right and we want to call you to task on that ."

Ad Age : What's the worst you've seen in terms of brand detractors?

Mr. McNeil: I have teenage kids, a son who's almost 18 and a daughter who is 16. I've had people personalize it -- like make accusations of "You must not be a good father." But those are very few and far between.

Ad Age : So what would you say if you're daughter wanted to work at Hooters?

Mr. McNeil: I think she's curious about it, but she hasn't asked me about working there yet. One of the things she did ask me about is if I could set up a photo shoot for her and her friends with the glamour and hair and makeup and great lighting. We do have a lot of expertise in that area with the calendar and magazine. We have the ability to take young women's god-given beauty and make them look even better. I sort of chuckled to myself -- they want to get some hot pictures and post them on Facebook. Look, they're not gonna be with their tops off or anything, it's going to be a relatively conservative sort of thing. The reality is we live in a society that puts an importance on appearance, and in some ways more so for women. I didn't make the world that way, it's just the way it is . When was the last time you saw an unattractive news anchor or TV host? Appearance matters. We sort of take it to the next level at Hooters, but I think that 's something that 's okay to do.

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