IHOP to IHOb: When is a rebrand a terrible idea?

Below is a screenshot of an actual conversation between the Sunbirds. It captures the moment I discovered that IHOP had betrayed me on June 11, 2018, by casually flipping the last letter of their name AND CHANGING THEIR ENTIRE IDENTITY. 

 
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On that fateful day, the International House of Pancakes became the International House... of Burgers. A bold move.

One Rebrand, Three Responses

If you take a closer look at that screenshot, you’ll notice that it’s a conversation between me and Alicia, our content manager. No one else on the Sunbird team is commenting. That’s not a coincidence.

Later, when four of us were physically together in the office, Alicia and I continued our heated discussion while the others tried to feign interest. That conversation went something like this:

ALICIA: Why? Just why?! I’m so upset.
BIANCA: First they change their logo to a bloody smile—and now this!
ALICIA: What’s happening in the world?
BIANCA: I didn’t even know they sold burgers. Has anyone else tried them?
MARA: [shrugs]
ANDREA: I don’t think so.
ALICIA: It’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever done.
BIANCA: It’s SO stupid. I just can’t believe that they think the mockery from Burger King is a good sign. They’re being demolished!
ALICIA: And they deserve it.
ANDREA: So guys, what’s the difference between IHOP and Denny’s? Aren’t they both just 24-hour diners?
[pause]
ALICIA: Denny’s is gross.
BIANCA: I like Denny’s... but they’re… just different.
MARA: I don’t think I’ve ever been to IHOP…

As you can see, Alicia and I were in the throes of a violently emotional experience, while Andrea and Mara were, if anything, only vaguely curious about the rebrand. They didn’t argue, nor did they care. What was the difference?

That night, I continued venting in a conversation with my husband. Just as I was painting the scene of the ridiculous meeting where I imagined the idea for IHOb was revealed—complete with a desperate CEO willing to try anything to become ‘relevant’ and an overconfident CMO praising the virtues of ‘making a big splash’—he interrupted.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The whole name change thing was probably a strategic decision that someone smart made for very specific reasons.” I stared at him, stunned. Apparently my life partner was on the enemy’s side on this one. Naturally, my resolve doubled. I ended up betting him a week of chores that IHOP would pass out of existence in the next five years. It seemed clear that only a failing company would be eager to make a move that so deeply alienated their most loyal fans.

And that is exactly the difference between those who loathe, those who shrug at, and those who defend the IHOP rebrand to IHOb: loyalty.

Why Am I Loyal to IHOP?

I don’t personally know a single IHOP employee. As far as I know, I don’t own a stake in their company. I didn’t have my first date or my wedding at an IHOP, and their pancakes are not even the best I’ve ever had.

My only connection with IHOP is a few 3:00 am breakfasts, in different cities and at different times in my life, each soaked in the comfort of knowing exactly what I was going to get: bad coffee, pretty good pancakes, and friendly service. IHOP isn’t anything special, but it’s my nothing special. I didn’t realize I cared about the logo at all until it changed. The full rebrand felt like a betrayal. It was like a childhood friend legally changing their name and publicly denying they ever lived in your hometown. It might not be strictly personal, but it sure feels personal.

Once I recovered from the shock of IHOP’s blatant betrayal and stupidity, I realized that I didn’t really know anything about it. I assumed it was a terrible idea because if I, someone who’s only been to IHOP a handful of times, could be angry—so angry that I started betting against the survival of the company and was ready to vow I’d never step foot in one again—how could it avoid losing its customer base?

But maybe I was wrong. Emotion drives loyalty for the same reason it skews our perspective: it has a powerful effect on our minds.

What Other People Have to Say About IHOb

Ready to admit that the IHOP rebrand might not be a terrible idea just because I hate it, I did a little reading. I read about IHOb in Forbes, Adweek, CNET, CNN Money, Mashable, The Washington Post, Eater, MarketWatch… and the opinions were, predictably, varied. Here are some highlights:

PRO-IHOb:

In an era when brands are spending millions or tens of millions of dollars to stand out from the crowd, what you’ve seen IHOP do is take a moment in time — a small event, the addition of a menu item — and made it a pop-culture event,” said Carreen Winters, chairman of reputation and chief strategy officer at the public-relations agency MWWPR. “That’s PR at its finest.”
- Tonya Garcia at MarketWatch
 
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ANTI-IHOb:

IHOP’s Name Change Is the Most Obnoxious Brand Move of the Year: “IHOb” is a new wrinkle in the dystopian hellscape of viral marketing
- Chris Fuhrmeister, Eater
 
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THE MIDDLE WAY:

There’s always risk of blowback with things like this, of course; fans of a beloved brand often resent any attempt to take it in a new direction. Yet most of the pans that I’ve seen of either the stunt or the burgers have consisted of people saying, “You fools, I love your pancakes! Why would I eat one of your mediocre burgers when I could be having your delicious pancakes doused in an assortment of syrups?”

People screaming about how great your pancakes are is hardly a marketing fail. Historical precedent suggests that this kind of nostalgia can revive a troubled brand, even from the brink of catastrophe.

When Coke was losing market share to Pepsi back in the 1980s, it switched to a new formula that was sweeter, that was more … well, more like Pepsi. It endured a frightening backlash and had to switch back to the old formula after just a few months. But then something strange happened: People began buying more Coca-Cola. Threatening to take away a beloved product had reminded people just how much they loved the old favorite they’d been neglecting.
- Megan McCardle, The Washington Post
 
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So... was it a terrible idea or not?

Bottom line: No one knows. In branding, as in life, sometimes only time will tell whether a risky decision was brilliant or ridiculous. But here’s what I do know, and what I’m grateful to IHOP—I mean IHOb—for reminding me:

  • Feeling strongly about something does not make you right about it. Although, for the record, I was 100% correct to assume that IHOP has been struggling ;)

  • A business’ brand identity–including its name and core offerings—really matter, especially to loyal customers. If you own a business, think carefully about whose opinion matters before changing your brand.

  • For better or worse, people make most decisions based on emotion. For example, I am still more angry than curious about IHOP’s burgers, and therefore will not be buying one anytime soon... But maybe I’ll get over it and, like those Coke fans from the 80s, eventually remember how much I love pancakes. Maybe I’ll forgive IHOP and become a regular, helping them catapult to new heights of success, all because of a PR stunt I hated. Or maybe they'll slowly descend into obsolesence. Only time will tell.

How did you feel about the IHOP name change? Continue the conversation in the comments!


 

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