The sizzle formerly created by Carl's Jr. and Hardee's provocative burger promotions has been refined as part of a new focus on pioneering food innovations and appealing to more discerning customers. 

For years, the marketing approach and menu introductions from CKE Restaurants Holdings Inc.’s Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants have been bold, provocative and ultra-indulgent. The same company that has unapologetically put 1,000-plus calorie burgers on its menu and infamously hired burger divas including Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian to seductively promote its offerings has more recently adopted a more refined approach to its menu development and even a hint of self-deprecation in its latest marketing campaign. In April, the company formally announced it was taking a less risqué approach.

“After gaining mainstream notoriety for over a decade as the ‘bikinis-and-burgers’ brands, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s have completely revamped their advertising and marketing direction, shirking its image as provocateurs in favor of one as relentless pioneers – ‘Pioneers of the Great American Burger,’ to be exact,” the company stated in a press release.

The chain was one of the first to add Angus burgers to its menus and was a quick-service pioneer by adding turkey burgers to its menu in 2011 in an apparent attempt at broadening the appeal spectrum to include both indulgent-minded consumers and those seeking a less-bold option.

Owen Klein, vice president of global product development and innovation at CKE Restaurants, says being first to market a breed in the QSR segment was a foundational move for the company, that is still paying dividends today.

“Our Angus burger is one of the earliest proof points of both restaurants’ commitment to being quality leaders in our category,” he says, “even if we were leading a category of one,” at least until McDonald’s followed suit. This planted a seed for CKE, as it eventually evolved to a quality-based approach. “It’s no secret Angus beef tastes better in a burger. We knew it back then and so did our customer, especially the burger lovers we were hoping to connect with,” Klein says. “Calling out ‘Angus’ in our marketing became and still is a cornerstone of how we promoted it – especially when we were the first and only ones in our segment to serve Angus beef. It helped us earn valuable credibility with burger lovers and paved the way for Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s to really become burger destinations over the years.”

It’s been a hard-to-ignore path from the ultra-indulgent era that included Carl’s Jr. introducing its Original Six Dollar Burger, a 1/2-lb. Angus beef patty in 2001 followed by Hardee’s rollout of its 1/3-lb. Original Thickburger in 2003 – and about six years later seeing McDonald’s Corp. rollout its Angus burger. Meanwhile, the burgers were promoted using titillating TV ads starring burger girls ranging from a car-washing Jessica Simpson to, more recently, supermodel Charlotte McKinney promoting Carl’s Jr.’s All Natural Burger line in 2015 and mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey pitching Carl’s breakfast sandwich.

Current campaigns take a tongue-in-cheek poke at the days when burger babes were the bait to selling a $6, restaurant-style burger during an era when many QSR competitors were focusing on value menus and at least one sandwich chain tempted customers with 12-in. subs for $5. Characters in the most recent campaign signal an end to the burger babe days and a nod to more diverse menu items and offerings that demand more from their fast-food than quick-service at a bargain price.

‘Cleaner' menu options

In early 2017, CKE announced the introduction of its “no antibiotics-ever” charbroiled chicken line at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurants, an extension of the company’s more natural beef additions. Brad Haley, chief marketing officer for both chains, acknowledged that after it introduced its all-natural, grass-fed burgers with no hormones, steroids or antibiotics in 2015, it made sense to offer a comparable chicken option.

“While the public’s desire for decadent burgers isn’t going away anytime soon, more and more consumers are looking for ‘cleaner’ and more all-natural, menu options, too,” said Haley this past March. “A few years ago, we became the first major fast food chains to offer all-natural, grass-fed beef burgers with no added hormones, steroids or antibiotics, and we’re still the only ones doing so today. So, we naturally wanted to try to do something similar with our charbroiled, chicken breast fillet sandwiches, but we had set the bar pretty high for ourselves with our All-Natural Burger,” he said when the chicken was launched in March.

Klein adds that expectations among consumers have evolved and CKE isn’t about to ignore their preferences.

“Thanks to our purposeful and continuous feedback process across our product and menu development process, we’ve known that our customers today care more about what goes into their food,” he says. “And for chicken, antibiotics has been one of the biggest motivators in the decision-making process for restaurants in the quick-service and fast-casual segments.”

More recently, the chicken sandwich line expanded to include a Hawaiian-style variety and the Chicken Club. It’s part of a menu that is always evolving, Klein says, and in this case heading off dried out breast meat.

“We had two drivers behind our move to a no-antibiotics ever chicken breast lineup, listening to our customers about not only what goes into their food, but their desire to explore new, more adventurous flavors. Our marinating and charbroiling process ensures a juicer chicken, and we know from comments we see every day that consumers aren’t shy about calling out dry chicken,” Klein says. “We wanted to give them a tastier, juicier option.”