Send in the Clown

Theresa Howard

Quick, name the coolest burger-shilling clown of them all, If you said Ronald McDonald, you likely don’t live in California or other points West, where the minimalist smily-faced clown who dons a dorky yellow hat has become a symbol of hip.

In a market riddled with burger battles and tit-for-tat discounting, sports and Hollywood marketing partnerships and talking dogs, Jack has rebuilt actual equity, honing a creative edge around of its faux founder that has helped yield comparable store sales increases for 14 consecutive quarters. With a strategy that aims both to exploit and protect the brand integrity of “Jack,” the chain has created a successful balance of cult status and mass appeal for the irreverent spokesclown who serves as family man, “chief executive” and the gatekeeper of all things hip for the 1,380-unit chain.

“This is one of the most competitive industries in existence today,” said Brad Haley, vp-marketing communications for Jack in the Box. “What it leads to is all the competitors reacting to what other competitors are doing and that means everyone is doing everything the same- value, new products and kids programs . . . Having a unique, absolutely proprietary personality in Jack may be the most enduring point of difference that a brand can have in this kind of environment.”

Not too long ago, Jack in the Box was more concerned about subordinated debentures than marketing strategies. The chain was just one in a portfolio of struggling concepts owned and operated by Foodmaker Inc., which was debt-laden and desperately trying to overcome the ethical and business dilemmas that developed following a national tragedy when four children died from eating tainted beef at a Jack in the Box restaurant. Enter Haley, who was tasked with the arduous effort of reviving the brand’s image wholesale.

Foodmaker has since sold off its three other units and made Jack in the Box one of the industry’s leaders in food safety standards. Once operations and finances were in order, Haley set about focusing his $45 million marketing budget on the typical fast food user, one undaunted by grease and calories, with an appropriate message and the right messenger. Haley turned to TBWA Chiat/Day, Venice, Calif., to restage the big-headed, sardonic leader known for doing things his way Dick Sittig, then a creative director at the agency, conceived an ad in which Jack, armed with a detonator and explosives, returned to the board room filled with the stuffy executives who had killed him off. With a flick of the switch, he regained control of the company as the head honcho, both literally and figuratively.

Goofiness aside, Jack’s return has become a real motivator at the company, as he seems to have become as much a brand steward as Haley.

“Jack has given the brand a personality and also a mission,” Haley said. “He is a staunch defender of the fast food faithful. Consequently we develop service, food quality programs and pricing strategies as close as possible to those that Jack would want the fast food consumer to receive. Jack embodies what lovers of fast food want and what they want to see in a leader.”

On the food side the restaurant offers the signature Jumbo Jack, Spicy Crispy Chicken sandwich, Sourdough Jack and a range of appetizers and desserts more typically found on full-service menus such as stuffed jalapeno peppers and Oreo cookie ice-cream shakes. Jack commands a check average of over $4, compared to $2-plus for McDonald’s and Burger King. Additionally, the chain has inched up its per unit sales averages, which hover around $1.1 million, fairly on par with its big burger rivals. And although the company’s comparable store sales growth slowed to only 2% for its third quarter, ended April, compared to Q3 last year, it is projecting a positive gain for its fiscal year on the strength of 2.7% and 2% jumps in the first two quarters, respectively-not double-digit, but also not flat as they are for the Golden Arches.

Sittig left Chiat two years ago, when the agency won the more monied Taco Bell account, and formed Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co. (an ad agency), taking Jack with him and helping the brand win a slew of marketing and advertising awards throughout the year including three Clio Awards and two Cannes Lion Awards at the 1998 Cannes International Advertising Festival. These days, Jack has spawned an entire family, with a son sporting the same big clown head, a wife knocking out the normalcies of a working wife, and lately the birth of a bunch of baby Jack car antenna ornaments who now appear in their own spots. The company will also revive a “Jack the Snowman” premium for the holidays, but otherwise Haley is not planning a big licensing blitz for the character.

“Given the large amount of ads we produce and the media put against the campaign, he has the potential to wear out,” Haley said. “We very carefully manage his image so he can stay fresh for a long period of time.”

Does Haley find it as easy to stay as focused as Jack?

“The formula for success has worked and we will stick with our core strategy,” he said. “As a regional brand, if we reacted to what the national brands were doing, we wouldn’t stand for much. We’ll stick with what works, independent of what the competitive landscape looks like.”

Haley wouldn’t divulge what Jack’s vision will bring to the next flight of ads, expected in November, but hinted that the “CEO” will be shown for the first time in the buff.

Program: Jack’s Back

Marketer: Jack in the Box, San Diego, Calif.

Agency: The Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co., Santa Monica, Calif.

Key Players: Jack: Brad Haley, vp-mktg comm; Sally Montiano, mgr-crtv svcs grp; Patty Foley, media mgr; Janet McCulley, mgr-mktg comm; Angela Segalla, coordinator-mktg comm; Janice Jones, mktg mgr; Kowloon: Dick Sittig, agency head and cd; Patrick Adams, managing dir; Cathy Yang, grp acct dir; Joe Feldman, dir-acct planning

COPYRIGHT 1998 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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