Creative Focus: Inside Jack In The Box

Hitting the Jackpot
In 1995, Chiat/Day resurrected Jack in the Box’s clown icon, turning him into a charismatic CEO. The brainchild of Dick
Sittig–who now works out of his Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co.–Jack has proven to be the perfect advertising springboard for the once-troubled hamburger chain.
By Angela Dawson

In 1994, Foodmaker Inc., franchisor of Jack in the Box restaurants, yanked its $38 million account from Los Angeles-based Cohen/Johnson, its agency of eight years. The action came on the heels of a management restructuring and growing competitive pressure from national and regional fast-food chains.
Cohen/Johnson had been part of the San Diego-based company’s damage-control team a year earlier, when hundreds of people in five western states became ill from E.coli bacteria linked to undercooked hamburgers they’d eaten at Jack in the Box restaurants. Four died. Jack in the Box responded immediately by instituting a stringent food-safety program, but the publicity surrounding the outbreak nearly ruined the company. Sales dipped and the chain’s executives realized it was time to re-brand.

Four major West Coast players–Chiat/Day, Foote, Cone & Belding, Hal Riney & Partners and Wieden & Kennedy–were invited to pitch the business. Chiat’s Venice, Calif., office and FCB’s San Francisco office faced off in the finals.
Brad Haley, the company’s vice president of marketing communications at the time, worked closely with both agencies to define their strategy–not only to keep them on course, but to get a sense of each one’s compatibility with the fast-food chain.
Chiat creative director Dick Sittig conceived the idea of bringing a revamped Jack in the Box clown character back to life and, with creative director Lee Clow, drew up a creative strategy for “Jack’s Back,” a launch effort designed to appeal to young men. The company’s research showed that consumers remembered a 1980 commercial (from then Jack in the Box agency Wells Rich Greene, Los Angeles) in which Jack, a clown icon on the chain’s drive-thru speaker boxes, was literally blown up, signaling a move away from its youth-oriented image.
The concept–the only one Chiat served up in its presentation–showed Jack exacting his revenge on those who had destroyed him. The idea was transformed into a launch spot in which Jack returns to the company’s headquarters and blows up the boardroom.
Sittig not only became the campaign’s sole writer, art director and director, he also was (and is) the voice of Jack. After the successful launch, Chiat/Day gave Sittig free reign on the creative development of Jack in the Box ads. Sittig figured that given more personality, the character could be used in endless situations.
Instead of a static speaker box, Jack is a no-nonsense, smart-talking exec who will taunt competitors (he turned up at the “Colonel’s” house to deliver Jack in the Box food in one spot), beat up naysayers and fire inept employees.
“It was so right on so many levels,” says Haley, who moved to Churchs Chicken from Jack in the Box earlier this year. “We knew it would be huge with our target [18-34-year-old males], but we also got a strong response from kids and women.”
Indeed, Jack continues to receive fan mail. Newly arrived division vice president and director of marketing communications Greg Joumas says people think Jack is a real person. “As in magic, we’ve attained a suspension of disbelief.”

Jack in the Box uses a two-tier approach, addressing three consumer segments: “cravers,” who could eat burgers every day; “dealers,” who want a lot of food for the money; and “quality seekers,” who are looking for a higher level of quality and are willing to pay for it. The Jack campaign has fulfilled the strategy by promoting new products and reintroducing menu items or showcasing value meals, like the Classic Shake Combo.

The Jack campaign features the charismatic spokesman and successful businessman, who just happens to have an oversized ping-pong ball for a head, capped with a pointy yellow hat.
In the 100-plus spots produced since Jack’s triumphant return, viewers have seen him as a devoted father who attends his son’s football games; a popular company leader taking his staff on a retreat; and a forceful CEO who beats up those who criticize his food. He even flirted with politics a couple of times with a “Back Jack (for President)” bumper-sticker campaign in 1994 and a mock political ad last year.
“Since Jack is a character and not a real person, he’s not confined to the restaurant,” Sittig says. “That lets us keep him fresh, and it keeps the audience guessing.”
At the same time, Jack in the Box’s message has evolved from a purely new-product-driven one to a brand message with some new-product intros, such as the Bacon Bacon Cheeseburger. In April 1997, careful not to wear out Jack as a spokesman, Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co., Santa Monica, Calif., introduced Jack’s minions–antenna balls with Jack’s head–to push the Sourdough Jack burger. All ads integrate images of the food products with a storyline. Each ends with a bag drop, reinforcing the product message, and a jazzy tune.

In the five years since Sittig began working on the account, Jack in the Box ads have won many awards, including gold and silver Lions at the Cannes, Clios and New York Art Directors Pencils. Haley says the work never missed a beat when the account moved from Chiat/Day to Kowloon.
“It’s grown stronger as the character has evolved,” he says, especially with the introduction of family, neighbors and the antenna balls. Jack provides a distinctive personality that defines the company and cannot be copied by rivals.
In fact, Jack is the anti-Ronald McDonald. “[Jack] doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” Sittig says. “He’s there to right the ship. The contrast between bringing back a company from the brink and the fact he’s a clown is humorous to our teen audience.”
Given that, Joumas says no changes are planned for the advertising. “We’re going to continue on our merry way doing what we’re doing,” he says. “In terms of advertising, my view is let’s not monkey too much with the process. We see a lot of legs with this campaign.” Joumas, corporate vice president of marketing Linda Vaughan and executive vice president of marketing and operations Ken Williams comprise the triumvirate at the client which decides on advertising. “We don’t have committees and subcommittees reviewing everything,” Joumas says. “That’s why we can take a few more chances.”

Foodmaker has reported 18 consecutive quarters of growth since the Jack campaign started. Sales at company-operated restaurants improved 23 percent to $324 million in the third quarter ’99, compared with a year ago, while systemwide sales grew 20 percent to $412 million. Total revenues reached $342 million, a 22 percent gain over the third quarter last year.
Consumer research confirms that Jack has not only created brand awareness, alerting consumers to what the company stands for, but he has increased the brand’s appeal. The company, which operates 1,500 units in 11 states (mostly in the West), ranks 19th among fast-food chains, according to Chicago-based Technomic.
The account has grown from nearly $40 million to $70 million in five years, notes Competitive Media Reporting. However, Sittig says, “Jack in the Box will never compete with McDonald’s or Burger King in marketing dollars available. So it has to be different. The Jack character sets it apart, and the chain is competitive in its 11 markets.”

Parent company Foodmaker is changing its moniker to Jack in the Box to ensure name recognition as it expands nationally. The change occurs today, and a new ticker symbol, JBX, will appear on the New York Stock Exchange. (Jack himself is slated to ring the closing bell that day.)
In addition, Jack in the Box plans to branch into three new markets: Nashville, Tenn.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Baton Rouge, La. The challenge for Kowloon, Sittig says, is to introduce the Jack character where he is completely unknown. Charlotte will be first with an Oct. 4 kickoff.
Sittig says he scouted the new markets for ideas unique to each one. For example, Charlotte is known for its Motor Speedway and banking.
“Jack will be hanging with the locals,” Sittig promises.