Saturday, May 21, 2022

"The Hut," Madison, MS

It's January 2020. I'm settling into my temporary home in Madison, MS, as I begin my internship, two months before the internship concludes and I accept an offer to return full-time, nineteen months before I move to Ridgeland and do just that. I hadn't really gone out to explore any local cuisine just yet, but on this particular day I head down the road to pick up some Pizza Hut. Yes, I know -- Pizza Hut is far from the ideal first choice for a restaurant outing in a new town. Pizza Hut isn't even my favorite amongst all the different chain pizza joints. But this particular Pizza Hut had caught my eye. This wasn't just any ordinary Pizza Hut, you see. It's special. Not just a Pizza Hut... this is The Hut.


The Hut

It's June 2009. Pizza Hut executives are strategizing how to combat the chain's significant decline in sales amid the recession. In addition to introducing healthier ingredients like multigrain crust and all-natural tomato sauce, the executives decide that one way to win back customers is to introduce a new brand image. Out is the old, burdensome, clunky name "Pizza Hut." In is the new, shorter, more accessible "The Hut."

The truncated name "ties in nicely with today's texting generation," explained Brian Niccol, Pizza Hut CMO. "We wanted to make sure that Pizza Hut and 'The Hut' become common vernacular for our brand." Spokesman Christopher Fuller echoed the sentiment: "We think that 'The Hut' is to Pizza Hut as Coke is to Coca-Cola."

For their part, Pizza Hut's consumers did not, in fact, share this sentiment. In fact, most of them lambasted the effort, and Pizza Hut quickly clarified that "The Hut" was intended just as a nickname, not as a full rebrand. The Pizza Hut name would remain on its stores and as the official name of the company. Nonetheless, certain locations did receive "The Hut" rebrands, and the pizza-less moniker also adorned some newly redesigned, bold red packaging for a brief period. 

Image courtesy idsgn

Image courtesy idsgn

"iHut." Even worse. Image source unknown

Ultimately, though, it's clear to see that this experiment was painfully laughable and a fast failure, a mostly-forgotten piece of Pizza Hut's history. Except, that is, at a select few locations such as the Pizza Hut on Highway 51 in Madison, where the strange wordmark still resides on the exterior of the building and a long-outdated mural of "The Hut" greets customers on the interior wall. The intention of the name may have been to signify that the restaurant serves more than just pizza, but "The Hut" doesn't particularly evoke a restaurant that serves food at all.

Exterior view

Close-up of the logo. Note that this location used the full "Pizza Hut" wordmark, which is likely why there hasn't been any more urgency to replace it with a newer logo over the years.

Interior mural, daytime

Interior mural, nighttime. I picked up a menu during the day so as to have an excuse to visit twice. Yes, I lead an exciting life.

Logo lit up at night


The Shack

It's August 2009. In another corporate boardroom somewhere, RadioShack executives have decided that their company, too, needs a boost. And what better way to do that than to reinvent their brand image so that it better appeals to younger consumers? Radios are such an outdated thing, in the age of netbooks and the revolutionary new Windows 7. RadioShack, it was decided, needed to ditch the radio. In turn, the company would become known solely as "The Shack."

Naturally, many consumers and media outlets couldn't help comparing the introduction of "The Shack" to that of "The Hut," which was still fresh in everyone's mind from only two months earlier. "So while Pizza Hut is starting to call themselves The Hut, RadioShack is now toying with the idea of The Shack," wrote Eli Altman of A Hundred Monkeys. "Is it just me, or is this slowly starting to spiral out of control? Let's take bets on when Burger King becomes The King, or when Wal-Mart becomes The Mart and Safeway and Subway are deadlocked in a legal battle for The Way. I know times are tight, but contrary to popular belief, cutting your name in half won't save you any money.

"While the concept of blending in and commodifying your company might sound good in theory, it's actually very hard to pull off," Altman continues. "For The Shack and The Hut, it comes down to the difference between what they say and what they do. Nothing about RadioShack feels like a shack and nothing about Pizza Hut feels like a hut. There's too much plastic and cheap carpet. Let's not forget that huts and shacks aren't that cool anyway. Of all places to get a pizza, would you go to a hut? No. If you were looking for a flux capacitor or some other little electronic gizmo, is that something you think you'd find in a shack? No f'ing way."

For his part, RadioShack CMO Lee Applebaum defended the name change by stating that "Our customers, associates, and even the investor community have long referred to RadioShack as 'The Shack.' So, we decided to embrace that fact and share it with the world. The Shack speaks to consumers in a fresh, new voice and distinctive, creative look that reinforces RadioShack's authority in innovative products, leading brands, and knowledgeable, helpful associates."

Applebaum's defense didn't really do much to quell the taunting, though. As a matter of fact, Mark Simon Burk of Make Brilliant Ideas noted that he started asking around, "and despite what agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners claim, we haven't found a single person who ever called it 'The Shack.' And though the agency maintains it's an employee inner circle term, none of the employees at our local RadioShack ever use it. Or at least, they don't admit to using it."

Vocalizing the comparison on everyone's minds, Burk continues, "You'd have thought agency and client would have learned a lesson from Pizza Hut when it tried to become The Hut, as in the cool place where everyone comes to hang. But so goes the myopia of most brands. It's hard for them not to see themselves as the center of their universe."

The thing is, RadioShack's rebrand could have stopped there and ultimately made it off fine. Pizza Hut became a laughingstock for a while, but never really went all-in on The Hut and ultimately was able to continue operations as normal, with most consumers forgetting the ill-fated name change ever existed. The Shack, on the other hand, devoted the majority of its $200 million advertising budget in 2009 to its new, "cool, hip" personality. Which, of course, made it much harder to forget, inviting even more ridicule. As you'll see below, The Hut was relatively innocuous compared to The Shack, which successfully reached multiple levels of cringeworthy.

Image courtesy Marketing 3.0

"'Our friends call us The Shack.' So claims the newly rebranded RadioShack in an attempt to be down with the kids," wrote. "It's almost embarrassing, like seeing your grandfather listening to an iPod and riding a single speed track bike. Wait, that would actually be cool."

Eli Altman, from above, agreed, asking, "Since when does trying to sound younger appeal to younger people? Trying to be younger is, like, something old people do." Randall Hull from The Br@nd Ranch opined, "The current trend to truncate brand names is puzzling. Is this an attempt to beguile the text-message obsessed youth market, where everything is 'abrv8d'? Or drive up sales through brand-brevity because we lack long attention spans?"

For a failed marketing initiative over a decade old, I was able to locate a surprising amount of The Shack propaganda online. And it's bad. Real bad. Shopping bags read "The Shack thanks you"; gift cards proclaim "The Shack has been gifted." Don't say I haven't warned you before you check out this website and the images below.

Shopping bag. Image (ironically) courtesy TheStreet

Gift card. Image courtesy Colnect

The Shack branding inside a store. Image source unknown

There are so many things wrong with this. Image source unknown

I have no words. Image courtesy Danica Himberg


The City

It's October 2007. The Hut and The Shack are both just unborn ideas in some executives' heads, not to materialize for another half of a year at least. Electronics giant Circuit City has stepped ahead of the game. This month, they announced plans to test "new concept stores dubbed 'The City,' with a new look and interactive layout in an attempt to give customers a new shopping experience."

It might be out of line for me to speculate on this, but based on the research I've done, it seems that The City had a much better value proposition behind it than either of The Hut or The Shack. That's because the latter two seemed mostly focused on reinventing the brand image alone, with little to no change to the existing business; whereas for The City, the retailer was experimenting with an entirely new store format. Wrote Alan Wolf in January 2008:

The concept stores embody "a portfolio of ideas" culled from two years' worth of "innovation work" in the company's Boston and Miami lab stores, said Steve Pappas, small-stores president and point person on the project. ... [At 20,000 square feet, The City's] smaller footprint is more productive than the chain's typical 33,000-square-foot box, Pappas said, thanks to shrinking product dimensions. The new stores are also merchandised more efficiently, with narrower but deeper assortments of best-selling, high-margin products. Modular fixtures allow The City stores to quickly alter the mix as demand changes. ... "It's very early on in the process, but we've had very positive feedback," Pappas said. The City "allows us to look at trade areas in a different way," giving the company greater flexibility to enter new markets and backfill existing ones. While Pappas was mum on the company's long-term plans, he said most Circuit City stores opening in 2009 will likely be in The City format.

"The City" exterior. Image source unknown

Newly redesigned interior. Looks pretty good! Image source unknown

"Find your rhythm in the city." Yep, can't wait. Image courtesy Momentum Design Studio

For some reason I can't help but be reminded of this as I look at this picture. Image courtesy Record Online

Of course, The City, like The Hut and The Shack, wasn't long for this world. Circuit City went bankrupt and ceased operations in 2009, rather than opening the projected 75 to 100 new stores that year. And while this company's adaptation of "The Name" wasn't without its own overblown copy designed to hype up the rebrand -- this redesign website describes the new interior as "Think Apple store meets high school science lab with a free-flowing layout and the coolest technology everywhere you look" (see also the bottom two images above) -- I still stand by my statement that The City had the highest promise out of any of these three failed initiatives. 

Yes, the name was a joke. Circuit City was no less subject than Pizza Hut or RadioShack to the risks that came with shortening its name: "Giving a nickname for a brand, it's a tricky thing," chief creative officer at The Brand Union, Richard Bates, said at the time. "If a client does it or a consumer does, it's a way to claim ownership. If you impose it... there's a little bit of danger." Likewise, any backlash Circuit City got for the name was just as rightfully earned as the poor responses to Pizza Hut and RadioShack's attempts. But at least The City had a well-thought-out, innovative new store format to go with it... and not just an ill-conceived desire to try and integrate a younger, cooler version of itself back into people's lives.


Other "The"s

Despite the questionable choices and branding failures referenced above (both The Hut and The Shack landed on this list of "5 of the worst rebranding disasters"), other companies over the years have continued to decide that taking some shortened part of their name and sticking "The" in front of it is, for some reason, still a desirable marketing effort. In their defense, at least, some of these brands have had better success than The City, The Hut, or The Shack. A few examples are highlighted below.

In 2015, Denny's debuted "The Den," a fast-casual concept aimed at hitting "the sweet spot for Millennial diners." Greg Powell, Denny's vice president of concept innovation, expressed, "This is meant to be a concept we can take to Millennials, not only on college campuses but in urban centers and other places" where presumably the creatures may be found in their natural habitats: "It's a Denny's built for them." Reinforcing the idea that Millennials are somehow an entirely separate species, the menu was reconfigured to feature, among other things, a line of "Millennial-friendly" breakfast burgers, and yes, that's an actual quote.

Currently, according to their website, The Den has five locations across the US, all on college campuses. I'm unsure if these locations no longer exist or if they simply aren't advertised publicly on the website (which would make sense), but it's worth noting that the National Restaurant News article I'm referencing also points out that the Den is "expanding at military bases." Powell, for his part, concedes that military members are "a different demographic" than Millennials, but maintains that the concept is still relevant to that application. (What a relief.)

In late 2019, Big Lots debuted "a new merchandising effort dubbed 'The Lot' in six stores, part of a transformational journey the retailer refers to as Operation North Star." Since that time, the concept seems to have expanded chainwide, as evidenced by my discovery of The Lot at the Southaven, MS, store, as pictured above from July 2020. According to Big Lots CEO Bruce Thorn, "The Lot will be an innovation engine for the store, bringing newness, freshness, and novelty with traffic driving assortments in new categories like apparel that expand our right to play." Because, naturally, it is entirely feasible that an inanimate corporate entity exists in some physical form and, moreover, has determined it must demonstrate an affinity for whimsy in order to win over more consumers.

This one, at least, has existed for a long time before The City, The Hut, The Shack, The Den, or The Lot (any other "The"s y'all can think of?). In fact, the image above is a screengrab from their 2001 (!) annual report. I think "The Zone" has found success where a majority of those others have not because it's been in use for such an established period of time and, specifically, its use has been primarily as a slogan, not as an outright replacement of the "AutoZone" name. It also helps that it's got that catchy jingle that goes along with it.

Finally, our last "The" example isn't a business, but is at least a businessman. I also have no clue how or why this name came about, but it seems to have stuck. Technically, he also held another "The" title for four years. But this isn't a politics site, so I won't go any further on that.


Thanks, as always, for reading The Blog. Until next time, have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!

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