Chain Restaurants Botch Recipe for Change to Woo Younger Customers

It’s not even up for debate: the older you get the more resistant you are to change. That’s why people get more conservative as they get older. They’re trying to conserve what is, and halt changes that they’re not comfortable with. It is the constant struggle between young and old, bringing change and resisting the great unknown of the change young people are trying to bring.

It is for this reason that the day I heard that the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) was changing to the International House of Burgers (IHOB), I vowed never to patronize the restaurant again. Apparently, I was not alone. Met with mass disgruntlement and ridicule, the IHOP people quickly moved to explain that it was all just a publicity stunt to meant to promote the fact that they also serve burgers.

I’m still temporarily boycotting the chain for undertaking such a patently ham-handed ploy. Hopefully, a drop in sales will send the message that they shouldn’t be tinkering around with a brand name that has worked for sixty years.

Some conspiracy theorists even believe that the change might not have been a PR gambit at all, but was meant to be permanent, and that the company only scrambled back to IHOP after suffering the disastrous blowback. I don’t believe that; I think it was just a dumb stunt.

See, IHOP works, on many levels. It is phonetically appealing. It is allusive, as in: “I am going to hop on down to IHOP and get some pancakes.” And the juxtaposition of “house” and “pancakes” is good; there are pleasant associations surrounding the act of eating pancakes in a house.

On the other hand, what is an IHOB? The company temporarily tweaked its name to highlight burgers, but who the hell wants an international burger? You can’t do better than an American burger, and the IHOP people should have known that. Nobody wants some bastardized, balkanized foreign burger. Beyond that, as something of a wordsmith, the new name suggested to me nothing less than, “I hobble.” The last thing you want to evoke when seeking the next generation of customers is hobbling.

Look, I understand that sometimes corporations need to change up the image to appeal to the younger set. The last time I was in a Sears and Roebuck store (the outmoded chain is closing stores at an accelerated rate and experts predict it is nearing bankruptcy) it was mostly deserted. Except for the employees, which comprised the largest demographic in the store and who were largely unresponsive. I did overhear one 40-something asking about a George Foreman Grill.

But they better be careful about moves to expand or revitalize their market niche. Those oldsters who frequent your establishment might still be your most dependable customers. And with baby boomers living longer and longer thanks to modern medicine, they may be around for quite some time, even if they’re eating pancakes slathered in butter and burgers topped with four bacon slices.

Now comes news that Dunkin’ Donuts will lose the word “donuts” in their name, and become simply “Dunkin.’”

I hereby dump Dunkin,’ an eatery I’ve been frequenting since as far back as the Kennedy administration. I’m dumping them on principle, the principle being that I will keep driving past any business that dunks, but deigns to identify exactly what is being dunked. The company claims that the name change is indicated because donuts are no longer considered a front-line breakfast food, they apparently sell other stuff, and they sell more coffee these days than donuts.  The change also “puts customers on a first-name basis” with the franchise.

This I can tell you: I don’t stop at a donut shop to order quiche. I go to a donut shop to get a chocolate-frosted donut with sprinkles. If it’s coffee I want, I go to Starbucks. I would rather not be on a first-name basis with a donut. For years now, the company tagline has said it all: America runs on Dunkin.’ Not without donuts, it doesn’t.

To what lengths will corporations go in quest of a younger generation of customers? To secure fresh demographics that will help them survive when the last baby boom oldsters finally exit the stage sometime in the 2040s, and the last Gen-Xers who grew up with boomer products reach the age when their physicians put the kibosh on sugar-laden donuts and bacon-bedecked burgers?

Will Tony the Tiger—an apt spirit animal for the hyperglycemic highs of childhood—become the endangered snow leopard “Angie”? Will Benjamin Moore Paints become simply Benjie!? Will DuPont Chemical’s (now merged with Dow Chemical) former tagline “Better Living Through Chemistry” become “Everything’s Going to be All Right, We Promise”?

Re-reading this, I realize I sound like the late resident 60 Minutes grump Andy Rooney. That’s OK.  Many older folks, especially conservative older folks, are resistant to change. The only kind of change they like is the kind of change that reverses the counterproductive changes that younger generations have made and conserves the beliefs, values, and ways of life that always worked for them.

They don’t want anyone messing with their donuts or their pancakes. Just don’t do it.