Andrew Bullis

Mon Aug 7, 2017

Carl's Jr. & Hardee's Grow-up with a new Identity

The following is a paper I wrote for a marketing class.

Once known in the fast food industry as innovators, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. no longer come to mind when thinking about innovation. Fast food chains like KFC, Taco Bell, and McDonalds have taken the crown of innovator from Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s heads. This overthrow put the two brands in a bit of a marketing daze. Over the past decade Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have seemingly eschewed identity altogether, instead relying on the shock value of their raunchy advertisements to drive sales. Last month, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s launched a new brand identity, which makes use of their history, mocks their previous marketing, and does a great job of carving out a unique spot in customer’s minds.

Since the ad focuses on the brands’ history, it is useful to be acquainted with it. Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. were originally completely separate restaurant chains, which served different areas of the United States. Hardee’s was founded in North Carolina (Lee, 2010), and their restaurants dotted the landscape of the Eastern and Mid-Western parts of the country. Carl’s Jr. was founded in California (Lee, 2010), and their restaurants were primarily located West of the Rocky Mountains. In a move to strengthen its portfolio, CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr., purchased Hardee’s in 1997 (Carl's Jr. Buys Hardee's Chain for $327M, 1997). The purchase of Hardee’s gave CKE access to the Eastern United States, and better breakfast menu offerings  (Carl's Jr. Buys Hardee's Chain for $327M, 1997). An attempt to rename Hardee’s to Carl’s Jr. failed, resulting in an odd quirk: both restaurants now have identical marketing, with both names appearing in ads (For simplicity, I will use the name Carl’s Jr. to refer to both brands throughout most of this paper).

            Recent advertising for Carl’s Jr. has sparked controversy. In 2005, the chain ran a racy commercial featuring Paris Hilton wearing a bikini while washing a car and eating a hamburger. The ad kicked off a campaign featuring scantily clad, and sometimes completely naked, women cooking and eating Carl’s Jr. menu items. The ads targeted young men, and relied on negative attention from the media to increase their exposure. This originally worked well; the Paris Hilton ad had more than 2.5 billion media impressions before it even aired (Taylor, 2015). Although the ads appealed to their main demographic, they had a strong negative affect on other demographics. In a 2015 survey of one of Carl’s Jr.’s ads, 52% of respondents reported being offended by the ad (Taylor, 2015). Despite originally finding success with this marketing strategy, advertising agency 72andSunny, which is responsible for Carl’s Jr.’s new campaign, reports that traffic to the stores was declining, and the ads left viewers with little information about the brand (Bhattari, 2017).

            With their rebranding, CKE Restaurants hopes that Carl’s Jr. will appeal to the sensibilities of a new generation of young men, who are more concerned with food quality than they are with sex in advertising (Bhattari, 2017). The new identity (outline at Brand New) starts with the brand’s color palette. The aggressive red, which once dominated the food chain’s marketing, has been almost entirely eliminated. It now only appears in a few small spots on the restaurant’s menu boards. In its place, Carl’s Jr. uses black and yellow. The palette provides a bold, authoritative look. A new iteration of the logo not only conforms to this new color scheme, but drops the smiling face from the star and some of the other excesses. The logo keeps the star and script as ties to Carl’s Jr.’s history, but has a cleaner, more “grown-up,” appearance.

In their latest advertising, the restaurants now tout themselves as “Pioneers of the Great American Burger.” A 30-second long television ad dives into some of the history and innovations of the brands, including an improved method of charbroiling, being the first to use grass-fed beef, and an extensive use of bacon. Another, longer ad, introduces the fictional founder of Carl’s Jr. (and Hardee’s), Carl Hardee Sr., who also describes some of the brands’ innovations and history. In that ad, the company parodies itself by providing a fictional explanation behind the raunchy ads of past years: Carl’s son, a stereotypical “frat-boy,” was left in charge of the company during that time period. The ad ran on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, reinforcing the fact that CKE still considers young men to be their key demographic. All of the ads focus on the product, something that was almost entirely absent in the ads running since 2005.

Personally, I believe this rebrand is a home run. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have lacked any identity other than “offensive” for over a decade now. Their bold new identity still appeals to their target segment, while at the same time managing to not turn off others. While their new marketing is somewhat similar to that of Arby’s, the focus on the company’s history manages to give it a unique twist. The addition of a fictional founder of the company does seem, on the surface at least, to be a little gratuitous. So far he only appears in one commercial, and it is hard to envision how he could be worked into other ads. However, addressing the issue of the company’s previous ads head-on is a great play by CKE, as it has garnered them a large amount of media exposure and mostly eliminates the threat of accusations that they are trying to get customers to forget their past marketing decisions.

Overall, CKE Restaurants and 72andSunny did a great job crafting a unique identity for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s which not only pokes fun at their previous marketing, but uses their history in a clever way. The fast food market is crowded, especially with the introduction of healthier chains. It will take great marketing to get the attention of customers shopping for a quick meal, especially when those customers are young men with a notoriously short attention span. Time will tell if their new marketing campaign will allow Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. to shed their outdated “frat-boy” image and retake the throne as the leaders in fast-food innovation.

Works Cited

Bhattari, A. (2017, March 30). Carl's Jr. and Hardee's dial back the raunch: Sex no longer sells fast food. Retrieved May 7, 2017, from Chicago Tribune:

Carl's Jr. Buys Hardee's Chain for $327M. (1997, April 28). Retrieved May 7, 2017, from WRAL:

Lee, R. (2010, March). Are Carl's Jr. and Hardees the Same? Retrieved May 7, 2017, from Serious Eats:

Taylor, K. (2015, May 20). The CEO of Carl's Jr. Doesn't Care If You're Offended by the Chain's Sexy Ads. Retrieved May 7, 2017, from Entrepreneur:


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