When Change is Good
Arby’s performed one of the greatest re-brandings in recent memory and gave the industry seven key takeaways from its success.
Humans. You’re one, I’m one. Know what? Every single one of us is ornery. You can’t tell us what to do — if you try, as a marketer, you’ll quickly discover you’re not our boss. We want to make up our minds for ourselves, and we’ll use whatever information is provided: news stories, dirty floors, ugly coupons falling out of our mailbox — anything you give us.
What do most restaurants want us to believe? That the food is safe, consistent, tasty, convenient, relatively fast (what’s “fast” depends on the type of food or occasion). They also want us to believe that the facility is safe, comfortable and modern. Trouble is, no restaurant can just tell you to think those things.
A few years ago, Arby’s was trying. Few humans listened. Diehards enjoyed niche items. Jon Stewart mocked them and everyone understood the joke. Some ate there out of habit or handiness. That was about it. They dwelt in a limbo of OK-not-greatness.
Years ago, in the Arby’s parking lots you’d find a giant, brown, metal cowboy hat sign with neon chaser lights and kitschy old-West lettering — it looked fun, like a beacon.
Big neon-lit hats are expensive compared to modern signage, though, so down most came.
Arby’s stopped being special.
Humans across the nation could detect their ads were the work of “clever” madfolk dreaming up slogans. “I’m thinkin’ Arby’s” went one, where actors suggested the restaurant to “friends” while a ghostly, superimposed Arby’s logo-hat hovered over them. Ornery humans recognized the clever ad folk were trying to trick them.
Their penultimate campaign claimed Arby’s was “Good Mood Food.”
Still, we humans could detect artifice: lots of things could be called good mood food, and we weren’t falling for the super-ironic slacker spokesguy. It was kinda bleak at Arby’s HQ.
Then: Their executives noticed a gap — most quick-service restaurant meals didn’t seem to care much about the centerpiece of practically every order: the protein.
Arby’s, with their roast beef history, could claim it was more important to them than anything. Okay, credible.
We humans found ourselves open to this claim. Let’s review all the great steps they took from that moment forward. We’ll look for lessons to anyone trying to redefine a restaurant brand.
1. Arby’s Organized Around a Single, Differentiating Idea
Meats. That’s their passion. Yes, there’s curly fries. Yes, they have that Jamocha shake people love. But side items confuse the issue. Meats.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Make sure you’re not trying to pack all your greatness into a single idea. Focus.
2. Arby’s Chose Something That Seemed Authentic
With plural meats, Arby’s could claim the high ground against every competitor — and with their history, meat-devotion seemed like a fundamental principle, not just part of the yearly ad slogan change-out.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Be true. Why do you exist? What is it about you that people like? That moves you, and your employees?
3. Arby’s Phrased its Differentiating Idea in the Vernacular, with a Touch of Droll Wit
“We have the meats” is funny, by itself. It suggests an unforced, primal appreciation of basic protein, as well as a humorous self-awareness that’s actually slightly self-deprecating. Very effective. They’re parodying boastfulness. We humans are very, very sophisticated at picking up those nuances.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Talk like people talk. Not like companies talk.
4. Arby’s Carefully Wrote and Produced its Main Vehicle of Communication
Those original TV ads were voiced by Ving Rhames, whose voice is loud and blunt — as an actor he can find shadings of humor in this fairly straightforward love of meat. Then Arby’s paid for beautiful food photography, scored the tagline with brassy, meaty trombones, and found writers who could succinctly summarize their position with wit.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Don’t kill a good idea with a mediocre execution. Not everything has to be expensive, either — there are plenty of boring, expensive ads.
The real key is to work with people who have what you might call a cultural awareness.
5. Arby’s Ads Weren’t “Funny for an Ad,” They were “Actually Funny,” Which Makes Them Seem Smart
To that last point — the original TV ads managed that most impressive feat: they were as funny as the shows they were sponsoring. And always about their love of meat, no matter the topic.
My favorite script, read in Ving’s booming voice, is only 15 seconds long for a short-term promotion of a corned beef sandwich with Russian dressing. It goes, “[conspiratorial, quietly intense] Unless you make your own corned beef, Arby’s is the best place to get a Reuben.
If you do make your own corned beef, [he raises his voice as if excitedly discovering a fellow lover of meat, though he is still stern and commanding] send your resume to careers dot Arby’s dot com!! Arby’s — we have [stylish pause] the meats!”
Most fifteen second promo ads don’t try to be anything besides informational. This unexpected left turn into Arby’s trying to hire me is funnier than most sitcoms.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Joke like people joke. Not like companies joke.
6. Arby’s Provided a Clue About Who’s in Charge
When something is well-made, well-written, well-cast, well-thought-through and well-produced, it’s easy for us humans to construe that the executives who invested in it also invest in food and facilities that are well-made, well-staffed, well-prepared and well-thought-through. It’s a small step, an easy assumption.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Know that your customers are always drawing conclusions about you, personally, and your willingness to sponsor quality in every dang thing.
7. Arby’s Gave Us Humans Something to Believe
Honestly? Yes, we’re ornery, but we’re also dreamers. We’re constantly looking for something to put our faith in.
As cynical as most experiences make us – “The drive-thru switched our order with someone else; oh well, I guess I’ll eat it like this” — anytime we see something that inspires us, we’re in.
A nation of humans changed their minds, surprisingly quickly, about Jon Stewart’s punchline.
They quickly gave Arby’s credit for better food and more passion — not because Arby’s told them to think that, but because the way they said it, and demonstrated it (remember that tweet at Pharrell, about giving back their hat on the night of the Grammy’s? — so in tune, so culturally aware, so quick-witted, and more evidence that Arby’s “gets it.”)
Arby’s allowed viewers to conclude they were better.
So, if you had a brand that needed to change: Have a little faith — if you don’t tell us humans what to think, but give us evidence of something true about your brand, we’ll love you for it.
The sales numbers tell the story. Arby’s had been considering closing stores — then they hit on this believable, engaging approach and haven’t stopped building new restaurants. For us ornery humans. Who they totally won over with a focused, believable idea that we enjoy hearing about.