Wrangling Matthew McConaughey, Carl’s Jr. Goes Its Own Way


Carl's Jr Western bacon cheeseburger ad

After decades of trying to track more or less together under shared ownership, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are the burger brands that are finally breaking up—sort of.

While CKE Restaurants will continue to own both brands, under the new leadership of CEO Jay Marker, the company decided it was finally time to liberate the sibling brands in the interests of sharpening each around Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s unique attributes. Previously, the brands would run the same campaign creative, but under their own branding; not any more.

Forthwith, Carl’s Jr. is running its own creative and will be known as the brand of “boldness”  while Hardee’s will emphasize “authenticity.” Both will be marketed across the U.S. even while remaining largely regional brands, with Carl’s west of the Mississippi and Hardee’s east of it. One impetus for the break-up, CKE said in a press release, was its selection of Havas Chicago as both brands’ new creative agency of record.

“We look at them as two regionally iconic brands,” Marker told Nation’s Restaurant News. “We think they have distinct customers. I often talk to people [and say] these brands grew up differently. And they stand for very different things.”

Carl’s Jr. is first out of the gate with a new campaign, landing the voice of Matthew McConaughey, the A-list actor and the face of Lincoln automobiles. In its “Call of Carl’s” campaign, the brand is trying to create a “crave culture” around the chain’s iconic Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

The spots features McConaughey in his inimitable quasi-Southern twang waxing excitedly about the burger, over images of the featured menu item and the excited faces of young men who remain the brand’s target demographic.

“Carl’s Jr has been, and always will be, a brand that’s impossible to ignore,” stated Jeff Jenkins, CKE’s CMO, who called the new direction a move to “consciously uncouple” the brands on LinkedIn:

Carl's Jr. new campaign - CKE Jeff Jenkins comment on LinkedIn

And while there’s a certain kind of seduction going on, it’s a far cry from what Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s used not long ago to use to lure the same young men: scantily clad and provocatively chewing young women. CKE last year vanquished this positioning with a commercial that featured the return of “Carl Hardee Sr.” to the company, played by actor Charles Esten, who comes back to find that his son has been running the company like a giant fraternity house—and Carl Sr. cleans house.

The pivot is in line with the new sensitivity to sex appeal in advertising in the wake of the wave of sexual-harassment and -assault allegations and admissions that have washed through Hollywood, the news media, business and government lately.

Marker came to CKE last year from a job as president of KFC US, where he oversaw the brand’s successful repositioning around the persona of founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Carl’s Jr. also riffed on “creative risks” in a tweet responding to Fergie’s national anthem kerfuffle.