Burger Chain's Ad Turns a Charcoal Briquette Into a Hollywood-Style Hero

Campaign comes from The Habit Burger Grill's new agency of record, Barrett Hofherr

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Charlie the animated charcoal briquette has kind eyes and purposeful energy and, despite his diminutive stature, he’s the magnetic star of a new campaign from The Habit Burger Grill.

In the span of a 45-second spot, it’s easy to get attached to the itty bitty anthropomorphic character with a big heart. But maybe that’s not the best idea. Major spoiler: Charlie is a crispy critter by the end of the ad, having dramatically forfeited his life to cook the restaurant’s signature grilled burgers. 

Eat up?

Creatives at Barrett Hofherr, in their first work as agency of record for the restaurant, developed Charlie with the sole intention of killing him off—but in a funny way, and to make a point. 

“Lots of brands have mascots, but we wanted to create the only one who dies every time you see him,” Todd Eisner, the agency’s executive creative director, told ADWEEK, noting that Charlie’s role “is to sacrifice himself for the greater good in order to make delicious burgers.”

Brand execs got the fiery-death-as-destiny joke immediately when they heard it at the first pitch meeting, according to Jack Hinchliffe, CMO at The Habit and a veteran of parent company Yum! Brands.

“I don’t recall ever laughing so much during a creative presentation before,” Hinchliffe told ADWEEK. “The creativity they brought to the table was off the charts.”

And so, brave and selfless Charlie has become the first mascot in the restaurant’s 55-year history, which Hinchliffe thinks is a key distinction in “a competitive environment and noisy category.”

“Brand characters and mascots can have incredible power in advertising,” Hinchliffe said. “Used appropriately and consistently over time, they can outperform most other branding assets in driving engagement, attribution and recall.”

The Habit, with its made-to-order “better burger” positioning, dukes it out with a wide range of fast food and fast casual rivals.

Charred new chapter

The campaign—featuring the new tagline, “Better By Char”—aims to introduce The Habit to a broader audience and “marks a new chapter for us,” according to Hinchliffe.

Still product-focused like previous marketing, the campaign takes a quirky, cinematic approach. The brand has already dipped its toe into comedy, working in the past with indie agencies like Party Land for an absurdist campaign called “There You Hab It.”

“While we take our food seriously, we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Hinchliffe, who has been top marketer since early 2023, following Yum’s acquisition of the brand in 2020. “Charlie adds a touch of humor and levity to the way we tell our quality story.”

The fast-growing chain, born in Southern California, is trying to expand beyond its cult following. It now has 370 locations across 14 states and internationally, though it could still be considered under the radar for some audiences. Thrillist included the company in its roundup of “Underrated Burger Chains That Need to be in Every State,” and Newsweek named it one of America’s Favorite Restaurant Chains 2023.

Charlie’s heroic gesture

The introduction of Charlie is intended to speak to loyalists but also be “a story that’s unignorable” to newbies, per Hinchliffe.

In the video, the character—a lowly but determined lump of coal—shows up at a Habit location and begins a slow-motion march across the restaurant toward the sizzling grill and its open flame. Along the way, diners and employees give him admiring looks and subtle encouragement. 

The inspirational background music swells, reminiscent of a Hollywood action movie, as the lead-up to the heroic—and somehow comically fatal—gesture.

“Before Charlie jumps, he takes one last look at happy customers with their char-grilled burgers, and it’s the last bit to incentive he needs,” Eisner said. “He even smiles as he falls into the fire, because he knows it’s worth it.”

The ad, in its full-length and cut-down versions, will run through the year on social media and in-theater and via connected TV on the West Coast on Peacock, Disney+ and other platforms.

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