The Carl's Jr. brand is the ad world's equivalent of the grimy, calendar-girl-festooned walls of an old-school mechanic's shop. At every turn, you can expect to see greased-up models in bikinis reclining on cars; licking their fingers; or bending over. If you are offended, well, the pictures aren't for you.
Some will be disappointed to know that roughly two decades of this style of subtlety-deficient commercials have worked for the burger chain. It now boasts approximately 3,500 locations worldwide, and has set its sights on Canada. But if you haven't yet seen the Carl's Jr. commercial oeuvre of meat-related visual puns here yet, you will.
The chain, owned by California-based CKE Restaurants Inc., first opened doors in Kelowna, B.C., in 2011. It now has 16 locations across Canada, and 10 franchisee groups with contracts to build more. The latest focus for regional expansion has been Ontario's Golden Horseshoe, which currently has a handful of stores and expects seven more to open this year, and somewhere in the mid-teens next year. The company wants to be in most major markets nationwide (excluding Quebec, for now) as soon as possible.
When it is, those ads will start popping up more often. CKE's marketing budgets are calculated as a percentage of each region's sales, so there is not any extra buck to launch new locations with a bang. Instead, the chain relies on pent-up demand, and brand awareness that has spilled over the U.S.-Canada border. Its marketing dollars so far have been mostly spent on digital media in Canada, which can be more cost effective and targeted more specifically to people likely to eat there. As budgets expand, that will change.
"We definitely want to get to television," said Jeff Branton, vice-president for Carl's Jr. in Canada, sitting at a table in one of the new locations in downtown Toronto. "It's a game changer. It's still powerful."
Many of the U.S. TV ads will run here, he said, and will continue to use the time-worn sex-sells tactics.
"It's who we are," he said. "The intention is to be a bit irreverent, to have some fun with the audience. We're never going to have the larger budgets, even when we're fully built-out, to compete with some of the other chains. So when we have something to say, we have to make sure it gets heard."
But is it the best way to be heard? CKE is holding to its strategy at a time when other stalwarts of women-as-object advertising have backed off. Unilever NV's Axe line of men's grooming products has attempted to strike "a more mature tone" to prevent customers abandoning the brand once they grow up a bit. Web domain provider GoDaddy found that its puerile style was hurting it with female consumers – many of whom own small businesses and don't want to do business with a company they feel demeans them.
Carl's Jr. is undaunted. In February, it announced that its Super Bowl ad – which aired in the U.S. broadcast and received plenty of attention online beyond those borders – led to increased sales for the "All-Natural Burger" it advertised. The ad featured model Charlotte McKinney walking apparently au naturel through a market, strategically covered up by produce such as (sigh) melons. As a private company, it does not disclose sales figures, but Mr. Branton said the chain is doing "very well."
The company says these ads, made by its L.A.-based advertising agency of record 72andSunny, delight their target demographic, which it defines as "young hungry guys."
What about those who feel these types of ads contribute to a climate of degrading portrayals of women – the kind of climate in which it's difficult to teach both young men and women about respect?
"I'm sorry they feel that way, but we have to go with who we are and who we need to talk to," Mr. Branton said.
Carl's Jr. is well positioned in terms of dining trends. Canadians spend $53-billion annually on out-of-home eating, but that spending is flat for full-service restaurants. Fast food, on the other hand, has grown roughly 4 per cent from a year ago and accounts for 46 per cent of that spending. The "fast-casual" segment – which includes Carl's Jr., Chipotle, Mucho Burrito, and boutique burger spots such as Five Guys – is up 10 per cent this year, in both number of visits and in sales.
For now, the focus is on the customers that Carl's Jr. knows are most likely to visit. The company has been using automated digital ad buying to ensure its banners and pre-roll video ads reach young hungry guys on their smartphones or as they're browsing websites such as TheChive.com and CollegeHumor.com.
The company has also launched a mobile application in Canada that will allow visitors to pay for orders with a tap of their phones. Mr. Branton is hoping that, like Starbucks Corp. – which leads the industry in its mobile marketing strategy – Carl's Jr. will be able to use the app to increase loyalty, and to send advertising offers directly to consumers on their phones.
"As far as the investment level, it's very conservative compared to what we get back in return," Mr. Branton said. "We pay our bills online now, we shop online, we consume our media online. This is where it's at: these little super computers in our pockets. It's the future."