The Liberation of Hardee’s; or, a Tale of Brilliant Rebranding

I want to tell you about my new favorite commercial, but first: context.  After Carl’s Jr. (owned by CKE holdings) bought out Hardee’s in the mid-1990’s, the combined fast-food chain launched a joint-advertising campaign with commercials featuring scantily clad women eating hamburgers in a provocative manner.  While the response was mixed overall, the commercials did bring a significant negative response in certain markets.  And a personal note, if you need to use sex to sell a burger, is your burger really that good? 

To make matters worse, the company never unified the combined Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s restaurant chains. CKE Holding never created a cohesive “story” for the unification of the two companies.  If you were confused with the whole Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s thing, you weren’t alone. 

In short, the people in charge of marketing for Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s had a unique challenge—unify two brands while overcoming nearly a decade of sexually-fueled advertisement.  And their answer was brilliant.


In March 2017, CKE Holding’s advertising team launched my new favorite commercial, featuring the fictional character Carl Hardee, Senior.  In the commercial, Carl Senior returns to the company and retakes control of the company from his son, Carl Hardee, Junior.  The actions of the character of Carl Senior in this commercial successfully manage to sweep away the past while unifying the brands.  And the way it works is a study in the art of excellent marketing and advertising.

(Image Copyright Carl’s Jr.)

First, Carl Senior allows the company to shed the decade of advertisement by dismissing it as the foolish actions of an immature Carl Junior.  In the commercial, Senior is shown ordering removal of the images of the provocative ads from the wall and having them replaced with images of juicy hamburgers.  (Side note: writing about this commercial is making me crave a burger.)  With this approach, CKE Holding’s doesn’t have to apologize their previous commercials to those who were offended.  Per this new story, it was just a young, immature Carl Jr. “sowing his wild oats.”  And with the promise of Carl Senior making changing things for the better, the public is encouraged to give the company forgiveness for the young Carl’s misgivings.

But the commercial did more than shed their advertising past, it allowed the company to unify the brands through the creation of a fictional backstory that ties the Carl’s Jr. story with the Hardee’s name.  In the commercial, the fictional Carl Hardee, Senior describes his journey to develop the restaurant business.  In the story, he intertwines aspects of both the actual Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. restaurant legacies.

The result? The Carl Hardee, Senior commercial serves as an excellent example of how a company can pivot its messaging while supporting business changes such as unifying brands and shedding negative publicity. 

Now I need to go get a hamburger.