November 07, 2005

Hard Rock Cafe's Chief Marketing Officer Reveals Three Lessons Learned from His Big September Re-Launch

SUMMARY: On September 17th, Hard Rock Cafe launched its newest location -- Times Square. And, despite the fact that CMO Sean Dee's ad budget has to cover 120 Hard Rock Cafes in more than 40 countries, he decided to lavish 50% of his annual budget on that one NYC launch. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign, plus Dee reveals three lessons he learned from it.
Traditionally the Hard Rock chain built its brand through over-the-top grand openings and special events. This successful strategy continued through 2000, "then we lost our way slightly," says Chief Marketing Officer Sean Dee.

"We had an expansive growth plan, which had us opening in areas that weren't appropriate destination locations, nor were they locations where you could generate a lot of press."

"It's difficult to gain traction in a consumer marketplace when your specific initiatives aren't generating significant news in and of themselves," Dee says.

So this year, the company decided to close down some of the smaller locations and return to its core focus of grand openings at high-impact locations. The biggest change -- Hard Rock Cafe NYC at 57th Street moved to Times Square at the former site of the historic Paramount Theater.

Dee decided to dedicate 50% of his annual budget to that one NYC opening, which may sound like overkill. But he hoped if it were done the right away, the campaign would generate buzz and more patronage for Hard Rock Cafes worldwide.

Hard Rock's four-step re-launch campaign

Here's how Dee tied the relocation of a single restaurant into a global campaign powerhouse.

Step #1. New microsite

The Web team created a new microsite, which could be reached at its own URL and also via the main site. (Link to sample screenshots below.)

The look was very urban New York. Flash-generated spray paint appeared to change the page when visitors clicked around. The audio background was a faint murmur of taxicabs and other New York traffic.

The site boasted its own new logo as well. It looked like the "I Love NY" logo, only there was a gray lump of rock instead of a heart symbol (i.e., - I Rock New York).

Step #2. Pre-launch global NYC sweeps offer

In addition to a press kit and basic launch factoids, the microsite featured a sweeps offer. Anyone in countries around the globe with a Hard Rock Cafe could enter and six would win a trip to NYC for the launch party.

Why so many winners? Well, it made the idea that one could win more believable. Patrons of Hard Rock Cafes everywhere in the world could be drawn into the excitement. Plus, there'd be more local PR opportunities on the backend once winners were announced for each locality.

Dee's team sent a "selling kit" to each of the general managers, marketers and sales managers for every Hard Rock Cafe around the world.

Worth noting: The kit was sent both digitally and via snail mail. People get overloaded with email, Dee says. "I believe you need to physically provide them with things in print."

The kit included an FAQ -- it's critical that you anticipate any questions that might be asked -- and suggestions on how the location might implement a NY Sweeps campaign. "We attempted to base it on experiences from campaigns we have had in recent years rather than on any sort of corporate mandate," says Dee.

For example, radio media buying was based on relationships the Cafes had with local stations in the past and how previous campaigns had performed, rather than an HQ-mandated CPM or impressions goal.

Dee's team also sent local marketers a collateral kit that included: --Table tents --In-store posters --Coasters --Pins for the staff --Lanyards with company messaging --Inserts for the menus --An "ad" or video for the cafe's AV --A set of PR points for local media

Naturally, all collateral featured the "I Rock NY" slogan and microsite URL.

The sweeps could only be entered through the microsite. "We wanted to keep it as executionally simple as possible," says Dee. "There were no physical ballet boxes, we didn't have to FedEx anything to local cafes. While that probably had an impact on the total number of redemptions, it made it so much easier."

Step #3. Launch smash

Typically, every new Hard Rock Cafe smashes a guitar or two on its launch date. For the Times Square opening, Dee's team scheduled the smashing of 100 guitars on August 12th, billed as "The World's Largest Guitar Smash."

Steven Van Zandt and Brian Wilson joined the guitar smash. Plus, for each guitar smashed, Hard Rock donated a new guitar to Peace Games.

Step #4. Launch party

The grand opening party took place about a month later on Saturday, September 17, and included a benefit concert featuring music superstars Velvet Revolver. Reverend Run, of Run DMC, made an appearance and donated his trademark cape, hat and collar for permanent display. The party also featured music from New York DJ Mark Ronson.

Guests included the sweeps winners, who had the chance to "party like a rock star."

Campaign results and three lessons learned

Throughout August and September, traffic to Hard Rock sites increased by a factor of 12 and Rock Shop ecommerce sales went up significantly.

Dee had estimated that PR hits for the launch would increase four times over average PR hits in a typical month. In fact, PR far outreached what he had hoped, with more than 10 times the amount of press hits the Hard Rock generally receives in a month. Best of all, the Guitar Smash was picked up as the dominant news story by 'Good Morning America' and other national news sources. "It was even featured on the ESPN top 10 plays of the day," says Dee.

However, Dee says the campaign taught him three lessons:

--Lesson #1. Don't have two grand openings

"It's funny, and an interesting insight, but we underestimated the amount of impressions we'd get for the guitar smash because it was a soft opening," says Dee. "We had anticipated that September 17 would be the major event."

While that day was a success for the company in terms of the consumer experience, "a lot of the press came back to us and said, 'Well, you can only open once.'"

"In retrospect, could we have integrated it into one event?" Dee asks. "I don't know."

--Lesson #2. Don't open on a weekend

Another reason for the subdued press on the September 17 opening may have been the fact that PR opportunities on morning shows are fewer on weekends. While music sources such as VH1 covered the grand opening, "We may not do that again," Dee says.

--Lesson #3. Don't assume every local Cafe will embrace the campaign equally

European partners did an even better job of launching the campaign, both in-store and with local PR, which was evident by the amount of local publicity and the number of entries. That surprised Dee.

Overall, he said, the best indicator of the success of the campaign was the sweepstakes winners. While they were offered a cash equivalent rather than the trip, every one of the 300 winners opted for the New York experience, and every one of them attended.

Useful links related to this article

Screenshots from the campaign microsite:

Note: Dee is speaking at this week's AD:TECH in New York:

Coyne Public Relations - handled PR for the launch:

Cashman & Associates -- Launch agency:

Hard Rock Cafe:

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