For years Carl’s Jr. tried to get attention by following an old advertising adage: Sex sells. The fast-food chain’s commercials featured Heidi Klum licking a burger, Kim Kardashian lounging in a bubble bath and Paris Hilton in a revealing swimsuit washing a Bentley. It even trolled critics with a defiant statement: “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”
That was before the #MeToo movement, slipping sales and changes in corporate leadership, with three chief executives in three years. Now Carl’s Jr.’s parent company, CKE Restaurants Holdings, plans an ad campaign in the spring that’s meant to put some distance between the chain and its old image.
“Our plan moving forward is really about how to keep food at the center of what we’re doing,” said Chad Crawford, a veteran of Burger King, Denny’s and Popeyes who was recently named CKE’s chief brands officer.
The company, once better known for its commercials than its food, has been without a dedicated advertising agency for most of 2019. New campaigns for Carl’s Jr. and another CKE chain, Hardee’s, will be handled by the 72andSunny agency, which is getting a second chance after the company replaced it early last year.
“We’re definitely not looking to the past,” said Jess Monsey, the president of 72andSunny, New York. The agency has recently worked with other companies to overcome long legacies of sexism, producing a “bathsculinity” campaign for Axe that took on male stereotypes.
CKE, perpetually an underdog to larger rivals like McDonald’s and Burger King, with more than 3,800 locations in 44 states and dozens of countries, has always seemed to relish attention. The rags-to-riches-to-near-ruin tale of its founder is industry lore: Carl N. Karcher invested $325 in a hot dog cart in Southern California in 1941 and turned it into a burger powerhouse in the West before facing federal insider trading accusations and feuding with his board. He was eventually deposed.
From 2000 to 2017, CKE was run by Andrew F. Puzder, a vocal critic of minimum-wage laws. He helped raise the profile of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, but was frequently accused of understaffing restaurants and underpaying employees. He was also an unabashed cheerleader for the raunchy ads, telling Fox News that they had “saved a lot of jobs” by attracting “young hungry guys,” although they had drawn calls for boycotts.
President Trump nominated Mr. Puzder to lead the Labor Department, a selection that faced bipartisan resistance. Soon after, Mr. Puzder admitted to employing an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper, later paying off the associated back taxes. He also denied accusations of domestic violence that were made and later recanted by his former wife. In 2017, he withdrew his candidacy for labor secretary and left CKE.
The company distanced itself from its racy ads, but halfheartedly. A 2017 commercial introduced a character named Carl Hardee Sr., who blamed the provocative commercials on his millennial son and declared that the company was moving to a “food not boobs” approach. The spot, however, sparked complaints because it included scantily clad models in a commercial within the commercial.
When CKE parted ways with 72andSunny, which had handled its advertising for six years, it gave its business to the ad giant Havas. The actor and frequent pitch man Matthew McConaughey signed on to do voice-over work, extolling Carl’s Jr.’s “biggety-wiggety, buck-wild beef.”
More than a thousand Carl’s Jr. locations started offering a vegetarian burger from Beyond Meat this year. On April 20, a date celebrated by cannabis users, Carl’s Jr. made CBD-infused burgers available for $4.20 at a restaurant in Denver.
Mr. Crawford described CKE’s recent marketing as “inconsistent.” In the first half of 2019, according to the research firm Kantar, Carl’s Jr.’s spending on ads fell more than 50 percent to $18.9 million.
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s brought in $3.6 billion in sales in the United States last year, down from recent years, according to the research firm Technomic. CKE will now try to turn its fortunes around with ad campaigns that are more about the burgers.
“We don’t have to manufacture a story,” Mr. Crawford said. “We just have to figure out how to tell it in a way that resonates with consumers in a relevant manner for today.”
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