The teasing announcement that IHOP (the brand formerly known as the International House of Pancakes) would change its name to IHOb sent the interwebs wild. In the days leading up to what some seemed to take as earth-shaking, potentially vortex-shifting, news speculation was rife as to what the “b” stood for. Bacon? Breakfast? Burrito? Bohemianism? Blockchain? So many intriguing possibilities!
One intrepid investigative reporter ultimately engaged in what is sure to be Pulitzer-winning work by simply walking into a local IHOP, where he immediately discovered some signs that seemed to solve the mystery: B is for burgers.
Shockingly, once we got the official word, it turned out to be merely a publicity stunt designed to highlight the chain’s new focus on meals other than breakfast. So the hemming and hawing about how bone-headed the name change was going to be then shifted to challenging the wisdom of the menu refocus or being offended by what some took as a desperate ploy for social media attention. The Wall Street Journal even weighed in with the deeply disturbing news that many customers don’t even know what IHOP stands for. It also turns out that there are quite a few folks disgusted by the lack of global sensibility in the menu despite “International” being right there in the restaurant’s name.
Of course, virtually all of this is noise. The publicity stunt will soon be forgotten. The people that like to get their pancakes at IHOb, er, I mean IHOP, will probably keep getting their pancakes there—or if they want to lean into the International part, their Belgian waffles or, if feeling especially frisky, their French Toast. The burgers will turn out to be a winner, or not. And the Earth will keep orbiting the Sun.
Having said this there are, in fact, at least two important and instructive things to take away from this episode.
First, a name is not the same thing as a brand. A name is what we call something. A brand is something different entirely—and far more meaningful. I like Seth Godin’sdefinition: “a brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” Often we get lost in the literal naming of something. But a powerful brand transcends mere description.
What comes to mind when we think about Restoration Hardware? Or Pottery Barn? Or Crate & Barrel? Or Banana Republic? When we stop to think about the names of those stores as representations of what they do today, they seem not only pretty silly, but downright misleading. It doesn’t matter. The customer experience over time is what defines the brand. So enjoy your Pepsi while Googling more about this.
Second, the challenges of IHOP speak to broader issues that many legacy brands face. There are great advantages to being known for a clearly defined set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships. Yet that often sets up real limitations and barriers to a brand’s necessary growth and evolution.
Mature brands typically need to retain their long-term historically valuable customer cohorts and attract and grow entirely new segments. It’s part of what I call the “customer trapeze,” and it isn’t easy to execute. The more brands lean into cultivating younger, trendier customers the more they likely risk alienating older, more classic ones. The more you start to push products you aren’t known for, the more you call into question whether you are serious about the core of what made you distinctive in the first place.
The thing to remember is that stagnation in the face of shifting consumer desires and growing, often disruptive, competition is, best case, irrelevance; worst case, it’s death. Many brands convince themselves that embracing radical change is risky, when in fact failing to evolve is the most risky thing a company can possibly do. We don’t have to look very long and hard to come up with dozens of examples of once-leading brands that failed to experiment and innovate and are paying a heavy price today.
So maybe the IHOb thing is just a goofy publicity stunt. Maybe the folks at IHOP are kidding themselves that they can become a meaningful player in a world that’s crowded with all manner of burger joints and casual-dining options. Maybe this is all just much ado about nothing.
Yet in a world where lots of legacy brands sat around and watched the last 15 or 20 years happen to them and now find themselves inching toward the precipice, IHOP should at least be applauded for trying something new.