Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The search is on. And on. And on.

KFC is hunting for the next Colonel Sanders. Papa John’s wants to find the muscle car that founder John Schnatter sold in 1984 to fund his first pizza. Applebee’s announced Tuesday that it’s commencing a search for America’s “real heroes.”

Add in the now-routine pursuit of customer’s ideas for new menu items, from doughnuts (Dunkin’ Donuts) to desserts (The Cheesecake Factory), and you have to wonder why restaurant chains still bother with ad agencies. They might be better off with Dog the Bounty Hunter, or even Elmer Fudd.

Call it the American Idol Effect. Restaurants are counting on the intrigue inherent in a quest to snag the attention of a public that avidly tunes into talent searches, “America’s Most Wanted” and the “National Treasure” franchise.

But they’re making a mistake if they view white-bread searches as the way to interact with customers, the arch objective in the age of Twitter and YouTube. They might as well announce a hunt to find America’s most adept flagpole sitter.

Many of the searchers should consider how Papa John’s is conducting its search. The objective is the 1972 Z 28 Camaro that Schnatter sold for his start-up investment in the restaurant business. The funds were used to convert the closet of a relative’s bar into a pizza stand.

The now-3,400-unit chain is backing up the search with live updates on Twitter and postings on a microsite, Schnatter himself is supposedly waging the search, but he brought along two interns to generate photos, videos and blog dispatches.

Papa John’s is also using a new gimmick that’s touted as a bridge between the real world and the virtual one. Customers can scan the image of a Z 28 from a Papa John’s pizza box and upload it as a virtual vehicle. The image then becomes an avatar of sorts, a visual point for taking the user on the search. It's as if the car is the sort of marker you'd use in a Monopoly game.

Finally, the search component is backed up with good ole TV advertising. Schnatter is shown delivering pies, so the focus isn’t completely off the chain’s product. There’s also the teaser of a $25,000 reward for the long-lost car.

The marketing ploy may be a search, but it’s supercharged with plenty of ways of interacting with consumers. That blend of the old with the new is increasingly being cited by social media gurus as the way to really cut through the clutter.

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