What's the (current) difference between Carl's Jr. and Hardee's?
Carl's Jr still exists primarily on the West Coast and the Southwest, with a handful of locations in the Northeast. Hardee's operates, well, basically everywhere else -- including the Midwest and South. But from the outside -- with a basic red and yellow color scheme and an anthropomorphic star mascot named… Happy Star -- both brands appear exactly the same, apart from the name. Ostensibly, it would appear that CKE combined the two companies, but only kept the name in an effort to retain fans.
Inside, their menus have been trending towards some semblance of middle ground. This is Carl Jr's menu. This is Hardee's menu. A quick glance will prove the only difference is that Carl Jr's served green burritos, and Hardee's serves red. Oh, and Carl's Jr serves salads (classic West Coast move!)
But once you peel apart the layers of the menu -- and the culture of each brand -- you start to see the subtleties that actually make a difference.
"I think fans of both brands will be quick to tell you, Carl's Jr and Hardee's are very different," Jenkins said. "And most people definitely prefer one, over the other. People have strong opinions here... surprisingly strong."
Since the merger, Carl's Jr has been marketed and developed as a more "in your face," type of brand. They seemingly aimed their advertising and menu expansion at younger people (who may or may not be visiting a Carl's Jr. for late night munchies/drunchies). At Carl's Jr, you'll find jalapeno poppers and fried zucchini. You can order a super spicy, "El Diablo" burger. In the AM, there's an extensive menu of breakfast burritos. Carl's Jr. isn't afraid to get a little weird. As far as fast food is concerned.
Hardee's -- on the other hand -- has always been the more "traditional" sibling. They have kept southern accents throughout their menu, like hand-breaded chicken and biscuits made in-house. Their advertising tends to be softer, cleaner, and aimed more at embracing Americana. It's slight, but noticeable.
And the differentiation makes sense. If you remember anything about the burger twins' branding, you probably remember the half-decade when they made -- sometimes not-so-positive -- splashes in the advertising world by pairing their food with scantily clad models like Kate Upton and Paris Hilton (NSFW, depending on where you work). Obviously, there was backlash. Eventually, they backed away from the misogynistic-leaning ads. But anyone with a bare sense of marketing basics should realize, this type of advertising might not appeal to all types of consumers, and specifically turn some people off.
This is important, as Carl's Jr and Hardee's have very different clientele.
Jenkins and his team have done extensive research into the kinds of people who frequent the individual brands. Carl's Jr. fans love the MLS. They listen to EDM. Hardee's fans are obsessed with college sports and country music. It's no surprise, given the regional separation between the brands, and it's enough to make a huge difference in how the brands are valued by their loyal customers.
"For a while, we combined both together from a marketing standpoint. And it worked. But right now we are at the point where we decided we need to separate the two in a way we've never really done before, in order to make each brand stronger."
Simply put: the two brands that joined forces in the 90s in an effort to grow (which, they certainly did, as neither brand has ever had a bigger presence in the fast food landscape), are now deliberately drifting apart, in an effort to continue growing.