The CEO of Carl's Jr. doesn't care if you find the burger chain's racy ads offensive. Well, he cares in one respect – if no one is offended, he's going to convince the marketing department to craft an even sexier commercial next time.
"If you don't complain, I go to the head of marketing and say, 'What's wrong with our ads?'" says Andrew Puzder, CEO of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's parent company CKE Restaurants, describing a conversation with the head of an unnamed organization that regularly protests company marketing. "Those complaints aren't necessarily bad for us. What you look at is, you look at sales. And, our sales go up."
Carl's Jr. and Hardee's supermodel-centric marketing strategy, which launched in 2005 with a commercial of Paris Hilton sensually washing a Bentley in a bikini, is all about bringing "hungry, young guys" to restaurants. A recent study found that 52 percent of viewers surveyed found a Carl's Jr. commercial starring bombshell Charlotte McKinney offensive, but the numbers don't lie: the ad had 2.5 billion earned media impressions before it even ran as a Super Bowl commercial. Now, it has more than 4 billion.
This bro-centric campaign also influences the chains' menus, especially the "meat-on-meat" offerings. Today, the company is launching the outrageous Most American Thickburger, a cheeseburger topped with a grilled hotdog and potato chips. In Puzder's words, it's "everything you would get at a 4th of July barbecue" sandwiched between two buns and weighing in at more than 1,000 calories.
Despite all this, Puzder isn't afraid of scaring off customers with the focus on hungry young men. "It's an appeal to youth, so it really reaches a broad demographic," he says. "My son's now 17, but when he was 13 he didn't want to eat at 'the king' [or] 'the clown,' he wanted to eat where his brother ate, so he wanted to be a young hungry guy. I'm 64, I want to be a young hungry guy. Some young ladies in your age group like to date young hungry guys."
Puzder became CEO of CKE restaurants in 2000, and has spent the last 15 years crafting Carl's Jr. and Hardee's to feed the voracious appetites of men between the ages of 18 and 34. Much of his efforts have been informed by his inner hungry young guy.
"I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it's very American," he says. "I used to hear, brands take on the personality of the CEO. And I rarely thought that was true, but I think this one, in this case, it kind of did take on my personality."
Puzder's vision has helped guide the company to impressive growth. When he became CEO in 2000, three years after CKE purchased Hardee's, he led the company in turning the concept from a struggling and shabby Southern and Midwestern chain to one that mirrored the West-coast centric Carl's Jr. in everything from menu to marketing. The "one brand with two banners" has lead the way in the current quality burger trend, from launching the half-pound "Six Dollar Burger" (sold for $3.95) in 2001 and releasing the first all-natural fast-food burger in late 2015.
The chains now have more than 3,500 locations in 35 countries and 43 states – a number that will be bumped up to 45 within the year with Northeastern expansion in New Jersey and Connecticut. According to Puzder, sales are going up and the company is only one of two (along with McDonald's) to increase unit volume in the U.S. in 2014. In other words: Puzder's system works, and it's only getting better.
As the company has become more-well known for its hungry young guy vision, Puzder says that it has also become more well-known in a sector less likely to chow down on burgers: celebrities and models looking for work. The scandalous advertisements have boosted the careers of models such as Emily Ratajkowski, who starred in an ad nearly a year prior to being featured in Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' music video, and Kate Upton, who Puzder says no one knew when she was cast, but was picked because "she was a really hot blonde."
"The Sports Illustrated swimsuit models that we use in our ads, like Hannah Ferguson and Samantha Hoopes… tell me that the girls actually talk about 'How can we can get on a Carl's Jr. ad?'" says Puzder. "Kim Kardashian, her mother Kris called me, and said, 'Can we get Kim in an ad?'"
Ultimately, the occasionally blunt weaponry Puzder uses to drive home the brand's identity serve as a calculated way to force customers and non-customers alike to understand and remember Carl's Jr. and Hardee's. Even if the latest Most American Thickburger commercial, featuring Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Samantha Hoopes eating a burger-hot dog combo, doesn't appeal to you, it reinforces in your brain what the brand stands for: boobs and burgers.
"Something that other brands are having a problem doing, particularly McDonald's, is nobody knows who they are anymore," says Puzder. "One thing about us: everybody knows who we are."