Last night, my daughter asked me about some of the summer vacations that I took as a kid. That was easy, being that we always took an annual trip to New England in August. We would load up our wood-paneled station wagon and hit the road at 3 a.m. to make our way from New Jersey to Massachusetts where we would visit relatives. Our trips were always road trips, unlike my children whose vacations usually involve flying.
Reminiscing got me thinking about how excited we were when my mother awoke us to tell us we would be stopping for breakfast shortly. Our faces would be glued to the side window as we looked for that familiar bright orange roof of Howard Johnson. It was the place my parents trusted when we were traveling. They were the first chain restaurants before we had chain restaurants. They were safe to my parents, which meant they were predictable and clean.
In the mid 60s, there were over 600 Howard Johnson restaurants spread across the United States. Whether it was ordering the Pieman (Orange juice and a short stack of hot cakes) for breakfast or the Tommy Tucker Plate for lunch or dinner, you knew exactly what you were getting and, while possibly disappointed, you were never surprised.
There are now only three remaining Howard Johnson restaurants and I’m sure their days are numbered. In their places are so many of the national chains like Denny’s, Ruby Tuesday and Applebee’s that have become the dominant stops on the road. (”A Stuckey’s Stop Keeps America Going” does not mean much anymore).
How was it that Howard Johnson, the first mover as a national chain and the market leader, fall so far? Simple. Because it stayed static. Its brand never evolved.
Howard Johnsons’ brand needed to adapt to the changing market but it failed to do so, remaining stuck in one place. The Howard Johnson brand failed because of the inability to focus on what it represented in the minds of the consumer.
Instead, it has become another in a long line of examples (Blockbuster, Radio Shack, Sears, etc.) that has learned that a failure to adapt and alter your brand along with your audience keeps you down, down, down.