business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

At a recent New York Yankees home game, those of us over the age of 30 were lamenting the demise of the printed game ticket/souvenir of the day, replaced by a mobile app e-ticket.

So when I looked up at the signage circling the outfield, I was struck by the one thing that hadn’t changed – the bright yellow logo for Nathan’s Famous, the iconic hot dog maker celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

The secret to Nathan’s success? Its authenticity, and savvy marketing chutzpah for the past 10 decades. The product hasn’t changed since an impoverished Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker hawked his dogs on Coney Island and undersold his former employer, Feltman’s, by a nickel. Handwerker charged 5-cents per hot dog, even though he lost money on each sale. After only two years he boldly renamed his street-corner stand “Nathan’s Famous,” where it continues to sell franks, crinkle fries and onion rings 365 days a year. He finally raised his price to 7-cents in 1944.

Today, Nathan’s operates 45,000 restaurants, retails its hot dogs in 50,000 stores in all 50 states, and sold 480 million franks last year. Its Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest is televised live nationally.

Two books published this centennial year by members of the family’s third generation detail Handwerker’s strategy: He and his wife Ida created the 100 percent beef hot dog using a secret spice recipe created by Ida’s grandmother. Handwerker hired college students to pose as doctors from Coney Island Hospital to prove even then that his products were “healthy,” and made his stand a must photo opportunity for political candidates. He believed in hype, and the hot dog eating contest launched in 1972 was the like perfect topping on the frank.

There are several lessons to be gleaned from Nathan’s longevity, I think.

Its core business remains the frankfurter – 100 percent all Angus beef, not a turkey or chicken dog to be found in its lineup. Its condiments are the originals – mustards and barbecue sauce, no ketchup – and pickles. The same holds true for its frozen fries and onion rings, and appetizer line, which essentially consists of franks in a blanket, bagel dogs and mini-franks. Rather than be distracted by the flavor-of-the-month trends, Nathan’s has made the most of its franks and the word “original” on almost every label.

Nathan’s has always celebrated its Coney Island roots, giving it a personality that a Hebrew National or Sabretts dog can’t match. And while the logo hasn’t changed, the company’s social media presence is active and forward thinking.

The best combination of old and new is Nathan’s multi-activation campaign Ticket to Fun, a virtual, interactive 3-D Coney Island launched this summer for the 100th celebration. With one-click, anyone can experience the Brooklyn amusement district of yesteryear, featuring the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel rides, the fortune teller Zoltar, and of course the original Nathan’s on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues.

For the folks at today’s Nathan’s, introducing and/or reinforcing the brand's traditional Coney Island street credibility has been and remains the key to success - understanding that the best and most enduring brands stand for something. It is a lesson for every brand, I think.

"Authentic" can't just be a slogan or an adjective.

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