This holiday season, there will be a special guest at IHOP locations — “scout elves” from the best-selling Christmas picture book “The Elf on the Shelf.” Campaigns like this, which aim to appeal to the whole family, are IHOP’s secret sauce, and executives say leveraging the right partner is part of the brand’s magic.
“We really think about what brands would be a great iconic t for our iconic brand,” said Alisa Gmelich, vice president of marketing for IHOP.
In the past, the brand has partnered with the likes of Dr. Seuss’ “The Grinch” movie and the Addams Family, all with the hope of bringing in kids, and kids at heart, Gmelich said.
‘A ton of brand love’
IHOP has long used nostalgia and emotional appeal in its marketing, and leveraging well-loved movie, book and toy franchises is a natural fit, Gmelich said. All three properties — Elf on the Shelf, The Grinch and the Addams Family — “have a ton of brand love,” she said, adding that it’s similar to the love IHOP customers feel for the brand. “Putting the two together just makes perfect sense.”
The “Elf on the Shelf” book and accompanying elf toy are a relatively recent holiday tradition that’s become popular with children and their parents. Children make a game of finding where the elves are perched. Parents are fans of the tradition because these elves “keep watch” over children and report back to Santa on their behavior, so naturally, kids are encouraged to behave. It’s a win-win for parents, and IHOP thinks it will be equally beneficial for restaurants.
The Grinch, a promotion that IHOP unveiled last year timed with the 2018 movie, put IHOP on the map as a significant player in promotional partnerships. Same-store sales increased 3% during the fourth quarter, which included the Grinch tie-in, and executives cited it as a successful campaign.
Bringing magic to the menu
Part of Gmelich’s job is meeting with studios and finding a good fit for IHOP. But “after the Grinch promotion, we’ve definitely heard from theatrical companies that wanted to work with us.”
The whimsical menu line extensions created to support these tie-ins are an essential part of their success. Each promotion has a sweet and savory menu item, and smaller versions for kids.
The Grinch promotion included striking green buttermilk pancakes topped with sweet cream cheese icing, red candy hearts and green whipped topping. The Addams Family promotion, which was released in association with the animated film this year, took the Instagrammable factor up a notch with its Wednesday’s Web- Cakes, pancakes topped with cupcake icing, chocolate syrup in a webbed pattern and a brightly colored violet whipped topping.
The latest promotion with The Elf on the Shelf includes Oh What Funnel Cakes, which are topped with shimmery “elf sprinkles” that look like “teeny tiny ornaments,” Gmelich added.
The campaigns include over-the-top menu items as well as those that appeal to a broad audience. So even customers who aren’t sure about green pancakes have options. There’s always a drink as part of the promotion, like hot chocolate. And there’s a savory option, like a rolled omelet. Gmelich’s favorite was Gomez’s Green Chili Omelette, with marinated pulled pork, Jack and Cheddar cheeses, peppers and onions, and green chile verde sauce topped with sour cream, which was part of the Addams Family menu.
The kids’ menu versions are a big part of the draw for families, Gmelich said, in part, because “kids eat free” from 4 to 10 p.m. during the promotions. The timing helps draw in crowds for dinner, which is part of IHOP’s larger strategy.
Keeping it fresh
These promotions have driven sales and buzz, but Gmelich isn’t satisfied doing the same thing with each tie-in. “Every time we do one of these, we try to up our game just a little bit more.”
For the Addams Family there was an augmented reality component. Customers could scan a QR code and take photos with Addams Family characters. For Elf on the Shelf, the elves will be positioned in different parts of the store.
“We want you to be able to come back every week and see where the elf is,” she said.
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