New book from ad agency vet offers restaurants food for thought

Veteran ad-agency man Charlie Hopper of Young & Laramore is starting to sound a little like comedian George Carlin.

Did you ever notice how restaurants rely on tired ideas more than any other major advertiser? Hopper asks in his new book, “Selling Eating.”

Hopper Hopper

Like Carlin, Hopper has a list of dirty words that shouldn’t be used, only this time in restaurant ads—clichés such as delicious, delectable, piping hot, taste sensation and succulent (he really hates that one).

Given that everybody uses these kinds of words, how do they distinguish one restaurant from the rest?

Hopper describes a somewhat intricate and delicate industry that is preoccupied with things such as moods, location and time of day.

“They’re not inclined to really poke at things,” Hopper said. “I think there’s a lot of risk of diverging from what worked yesterday,” he said of restaurateur sentiment.

Hopper, who also teaches advertising at Butler University, was creative director for Steak n Shake restaurants for years, helping come up with edgy humor that won Young & Laramore lots of industry acclaim. Unfortunately, the restaurant chain’s new management parted ways with Y&L in 2008, after 18 years.

Hopper, 50, also wrote some of the tray liners for McDonald’s “mildly notorious” McDLT burgers in the 1980s, which came in a two-chambered Styrofoam package. The hot stuff was placed in one chamber while cool vegetable toppings were in the other.

Hopper’s book (available on for $10.96 as a paperback and $17.11 as a hardback) points out some of the winning and losing strategies over the years.

Among the most clever is the use of mirth by local Mexican restaurant Acapulco Joe’s. A sign at the restaurant proclaims the restaurant “has sold over five million tacos—do you realize that represents over 6 pounds of ground beef?”

“You definitely know there’s a one-of-a-kind character to this joint. … It’s my belief that people come for the personality more than actual food.”

One can tell Hopper has spent years in analytical torment—asking such profound questions as why Red Lobster ads always seem to show someone squeezing a lemon onto lobster. Curious why, he tracked down the photographer who started the lemon thing, Michael Somoroff.

“What were we going to show—a fishhook? People put lemon on seafood. We made it the thing,” Somoroff told him.

Hopper challenges restaurateurs to identify their own “thing.”

The book presents some elements of marketing that the masses wouldn’t ordinarily think of, including what’s printed on a restaurant’s beverage cups—something he photographs while out eating.

Subway, for example, prints nutritional information on its soda cups. It’s not a good-looking cup. But Subway wins to the extent customers believe it is the healthy choice when they’re hungry, don’t have a lot of money, and can’t bring themselves to go to a burger joint, he said.

He discusses the attempts at brand repositioning at Ruby Tuesday vs. Domino’s Pizza.

Ruby Tuesday was trying to go more upscale. As such, it ran ads mocking the look-alike bar-and-grill competitors. One ad presented the theme that the company was about to blow up its last, old-style Ruby Tuesday. The ad instead shows a competitor’s look-alike restaurant going up in smoke.

While the ad gave people something to talk about, the average eater really doesn’t care if a restaurant is having identity problems.

On the other hand, a self-critical ad campaign by Domino’s was effective, he said, as consumers are better able to identify with the problem of a bad-tasting pizza than the clunky atmosphere of a restaurant.

Dominos executives went on TV and were “brutally honest” about what they did wrong with the pizza, “which led people to trust them,” Hopper contends.

His book also shows that clever marketing needn’t be expensive.

Applebee’s has spent millions of dollars on television ads that seek to convey the chain restaurants as a neighborhood kind of joint, a member of the community.

But he shows an example in which Indiana restaurant chain Jim Dandy posted on its sign board a congratulatory message to an Olympic diver from the town for his achievements.

“They win affection and loyalty,” Hopper said of Jim Dandy. “Applebee’s inability to really pull off local is put into a direct and uncomplimentary contrast with this.”

A number of restaurant chains have tried to play it safe during the recession, observes Y&L CEO Paul Knapp. He cites a “culture or atmosphere of fear, of not wanting to make a big mistake.”•

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