Sweet: Whataburger
I haven’t eaten a fast food or restaurant hamburger since 1996, and I’m happy to report that there is such a thing as life without fast food. But I haven’t been able to live without chain restaurant television ads – dissecting the new branding and advertising schemes they come up with is highly addictive. So when I first saw the narrated Whataburger TV spots that came out last year (produced by McGarrah-Jessee of Austin) I was pleasantly surprised for once. Here, I thought, is a refreshing campaign with no cheese.

The target audience (working class, conservative-minded white, African-American and Latino folks) is not parodied or patronized, unlike, say, in the Church’s chicken commercials. The unseen male narrator has a straight-talkin’, aged voice, like a cowboy poet and old timey shopkeeper all rolled into one. Whoever he is, you feel like you can trust him to tell you the truth, whether he’s spinning a yarn or selling you a can of boot polish. This attitude of trust is very important to an audience that is constantly talked down to and/or disrespected in most ads. The language in his script is somewhat abstract, but the circular structure has an aspect of myth about it that don’t require a college education to understand. It also doesn’t take a degree to figure out Whataburger means What a burger!, but the company pokes fun at its ridiculous-sounding name at the end of every commercial, when the narrator exclaims those very words.

The visuals – mostly concentrating on the food and its preparation – are also non-traditional for a fast food commercial. The direction is fairly static without a lot of fast cuts, and each shot is more of a sophisticated design composition in itself, especially evident in the famous round stickers featured in the “Just Like You Like It” ad. The slow pace and verbal content aims to give the viewer nostalgia for homestyle cooking, but does so without being in-your-face folksy. Subtlety is accomplished by the visual focus on the unique, fresh qualities of the food, not a on a specific person or group or (meat) market.

But my personal favorite is the graphic design. It’s some of the best re-branding I have seen for a fast food chain in a long time. Not only is it well-executed, it really captures the brand’s identity. Whataburger must know they have a good thing going, what with the burgers not made until you order them like grandma used to, or your hometown’s Dairy Creme Drive-In used to until the new Mickey D’s in the Wal-Mart put them out of business. Instead of disengaging itself from the past, Whataburger embraces its anachronicity, with a twist. The graphic design (shown in commercials and signage) keeps the celebrated orange, the Dom Casual-ish font, and the stripes. Contemporary elements added to other parts incorporate brown, retro-looking illustrations and unusual fonts on a spare layout. The esthetic is actually quite hip, but rather than being pure throwback to the 1950’s – 80’s for reasons of irony, conservatism, or just trying to find some frickin’ meaning in our postmodern society, like one of those Urban Outfitters t-shirts, the Whataburger graphic design succeeds in proving that the brand has modern relevance, staying power, and old fashioned honesty.

Shameful: Dairy Queen aka DQ

Recently, I was lured to one of the remaining Dairy Queens in Austin at the prospect of trying a Valentine’s Day chocolate-covered strawberry Blizzard, even though I am not a big ice cream fan, much less one to salivate at a food-related TV commercial.

My boyfriend (excited at the prospect of any kind of food) and I drove to the Bastion of the Beltbuster – except I nearly passed it by. At first, I thought Hungerbuster Headquarters had been turned in to a Scholtzsky’s. Gone was the red sloping roof and the pebble-concrete entrance apron of yesteryear. It was replaced by natural slate, soft exterior up-lighting and a large sign that declared “Restaurant.” One of those garish scrolling bank signs was out front, under the new DQ logo with two sporty blue and yellow stripes encasing the iconic, voluptuous red, uh, thing. Inside, the floor plan hadn’t changed – even the corral-like iron bars leading to the register were still there – but the décor was completely remodeled. Instead of the familiar hard red plastic benches, there were cushioned navy blue and cream booths. All other existing plastic had been converted to beech laminate, and many of the exterior features like the ambient lighting and slate were also installed.

It’s all part of Dairy Queen, Inc.’s new DQ Grill & Chill flagship concept. According to their website, “[t]his concept offers a total food service program, featuring the full line of our famous DQ® soft serve treat products and an all new food menu. These restaurants are designed to feature food offerings while maintaining our DQ treat heritage. The interior is warm and inviting – different from, and better than the typical quick-service restaurant.” Despite its “improvements” and “updates,” all the facades made the place look even more cheap and tawdry, like a hoochie attending business college.

Most tragic of all, it seemed that the Dairy Queen had lost (or sold) her soul. What Dairy Queen, Inc. doesn’t realize is that the biggest part of the Dairy Queen dining experience is the nostalgia, a return to an environment that hasn’t changed since childhood, whether you grew up in the 80’s or the 50’s. The neglect of trendization (my own coinage) over the years makes for a completely different eating experience no other chain burger joint can offer.

The name “Dairy Queen” has also been stricken from the record. It isn’t mentioned at all in their TV spots, and as I mentioned earlier, the logo has been revamped to just plain ol’ “DQ.” It’s bad enough the restaurants are getting shoddy facelifts, but it’s astounding that the company doesn’t appear to have conducted any research on other fast food franchises that have modified their identity to initials. Here’s an extra-large hint: it’s spelled K-F-C. Kentucky Fried Chicken changed their name over 10 years ago, and look how they’re doing: critics rip apart their inane TV commercials even after the passing of the healthy fried chicken fiasco and everyone knows their business is weak as a mutated chicken in a cage. I hate to say it, but DQ, you soulless brand, that’s where you’re headed.

My chocolate-covered strawberry Blizzard was every bit as delicious as I hoped, but its creamy goodness was tempered by Dairy Queen’s hideous extreme makeover. “That’s what I like about Texas”? Not anymore.

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