What IHOb and Mr. Peanut’s Death Can Teach You About an Iconic Brand Flex

An architect of IHOP's megaviral stunt sees a kindred spirit in #RIPeanut

The IHOb logo next to a close-up of Mr. Peanut
Both campaigns showed how you can ignite passions that consumers didn't even know they had for brands. Logos via IHOP and Planters
Headshot of David Griner

If you didn’t care about Mr. Peanut in life but you’re highly opinionated on the matter of his death, you’re definitely not alone.

The monocled mascot was abruptly announced as deceased this week by his employer, Planters, after a Super Bowl ad teaser from agency VaynerMedia showed him plunging to his doom. Within an hour of the announcement via Twitter, #RIPeanut was a trending topic on Twitter, and the buzz only grew from there.

For those in marketing, the rapid and surprisingly impassioned response to a relatively workaday brand was reminiscent of IHOP’s megaviral name change to IHOb in 2018. Also announced with a tweet, the move initially sparked widespread speculation about what the “b” could stand for; when it was announced as the International House of Burgers, the fires of social commentary were stoked once again.

Although it was somewhat snubbed on the ad awards circuit, IHOb was a PR and marketing triumph on a scale the industry has hardly ever seen. By changing one letter, agency Droga5 instantly turned a sleepy brand image into a subject for debate anywhere from church to work to late-night talk show monologues.

Given the similar public response being generated by Planters’ supposed offing of Mr. Peanut, we reached out to one of the chief architects of the IHOb campaign, Droga5  executive creative director Scott Bell, to chat about what turns a social-driven stunt into an inescapable pop culture flash point.

Sparking a ‘latent passion’

Scott Bell

While IHOb and #RIPeanut were created by very different agencies (Droga5 and VaynerMedia, respectively), Bell is quick to admit he felt like “kindred spirits with the team that worked on the Mr. Peanut stuff” once the reaction began to snowball, initially on Twitter.

“It’s the reaction they’re getting,” Bell said. “We got a very similar reaction, and a big part of it is when you take an iconic brand like Planters or IHOP and mess with it in any way, it really brings out this latent passion for the brand that people didn’t even realize they had.”

Sure, many were certainly mocking Planters and its dated, uber-capitalist icon, but there’s no doubt they were talking about the brand and, however darkly, validating Mr. Peanut’s role as a marketing icon.

Planters hasn’t showed its hand yet on how its Super Bowl ad will—or won’t—revive Mr. Peanut, but it has attempted to nudge the conversation along by sharing some of the better fan tweets and brand responses:

Keeping a straight face

Staying silent on the permanence of a decision—like, say, renaming your restaurant chain or killing your mascot—is an important part of letting a viral conversation take off on its own, Bell said.

“Once you’ve started that conversation, I think it’s best to let that play out,” Bell said. “If they were trying too hard to dictate the conversation, I think that would sour it. It’s much more fun to let it develop and take on a life of its own.”

That said, Bell and his team also are keenly aware of how much willpower it takes to watch your campaign idea get debated, shredded, satirized and misunderstood right in your own social feeds, without you being able to say a word in its defense.

“It’s actually a hard thing to do,” he said. “You have moments you feel you have to defend yourself and the agency and the brand, where you want to say: ‘It was a calculated risk! We’re good marketers! We know what we’re doing!'”

Create stories that engage, but watch the metrics

Another key challenge is maintaining a high level of conversation in an age when trending topics can rise and fall in minutes. For IHOb, Bell said, the agency and brand kept a close eye on social analytics to see when the discussion was in danger of falling into silence, then finding a way to nudge it back into the cultural spotlight.

“You can watch the conversation peak and, as it’s coming down, know that we need to do something now,” he said. “If you wait one more day, the conversation’s over. Just doing that active social listening is a big part of it.”

But to Bell, the biggest lesson of both IHOb and #RIPeanut is that brands and their agencies need to be willing to play the edges and find fun ways to put their names and products into the mainstream conversation—even if that means letting it get weird.

“People do tend to treat some of these brand mascots almost too sacred. You’ve got more room than you might imagine to play with that stuff and have fun with it, as long as it’s in the service of the greater good,” Bell said.

“That’s probably more important now than ever—to have a story people want to talk about. Being active doing things people are talking about makes the brand feel more innovative and young and tapped in.”

For all the latest Super Bowl advertising news—who’s in, who’s out, teasers, full ads and more—check out Adweek’s Super Bowl 2020 Ad Tracker. And join us on the evening of Feb. 2 for the best live coverage of the commercials anywhere.

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."