Olive Garden has a problem worse than its food*—Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend loves the place. Loves, loves, loves it. And that, The Wall Street Journal reports, makes execs at Olive Garden’s parent company and ad agency uncomfortable.
“I don’t feel comfortable talking about this … because it is a complicated issue for the brand,” Michele Kay, executive vice president of WPP Group’s Grey advertising firm, told WSJ. WPP oversees Olive Garden’s ads.
Poor Kendra Wilkinson, Hefner's girlfriend, the beautiful, busty, blue-eyed blonde—and Playboy model—who just wants to show her love for Olive Garden’s artichoke dip, salads and, of course, breadsticks.
Items she calls her “soul food,” WSJ reported.
(I’m going to let that comment hang … momentarily … so you can really soak it in.)
Wilkinson is co-star of the reality show, “The Girls Next Door,” which is about Hefner’s girlfriends. On the show, Wilkinson not only expresses her love for the restaurant but also sent a call to Olive Garden waitresses: Who’s the hottest? The winner gets a spread in Playboy magazine.
That’s a huge celebrity endorsement—for free! I imagine the company behind Steven Seagal’s Lightning Drink pays the actor (for lack of a better word) a fortune for his name. Olive Garden could save a bundle on its B-list, sorry, D-list celebrity endorsements.**
Problem is Olive Garden goes for that family-friendly atmosphere (“When you’re here, you’re family”). Imagine how uncomfortable dad and teenage son will be when the centerfold from that Playboy they unknowingly share is their waitress.
So what is the restaurant chain doing? Not talking about it, WSJ said. They want to maintain the family-friendly vibe without offending Wilkinson.
Apparently this is a problem for brands: what do you do when you don’t want the endorsement? Some political candidates, the biggest brand names of all, have balked at celebrity endorsements.
For instance, Hillary Clinton undoubtedly appreciated OJ Simpson’s primary vote, although she probably wished he’d kept that to himself. When MTV reality star Heidi Montag endorsed John McCain, the candidate probably cringed given his Obama attack ad comparing his Democratic rival to celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears—oh wait, no, McCain has actually welcomed the Montag endorsement. Never mind.
In an interview with WSJ, Pete Blackshaw, of Nielson Online Strategic Services, called these unsolicited endorsements the “double-edged sword of brand advocacy” insisting such a thing is difficult to manage.
While WSJ offers no true solution to this conundrum, it illustrates what Starbucks does: Don’t say anything, good or bad. Whether it’s the Dalai Lama or Vladimir Putin clutching a venti latte and appearing on magazine covers, the company’s policy is to stay mum.
And that, too, is Olive Garden’s approach, where “when you’re here, you’re like the disgraced relative no one wants to talk to.”
*I have no idea if Olive Garden food is good or bad for you and today I’d probably enjoy a meal from the restaurant; however, my college roommate served at the restaurant and after every shift brought home leftover bread sticks. I ate my weight in those delicious treats and one night grew violently ill—no doubt from my own lack of self-restraint—which soiled future experiences at the eatery.
**Just for fun, I searched both Wilkinson and Seagal on MySpace and learned Wilkinson has a whopping 728,646 MySpace friends, while Steven Seagal registers only 8,269 friends. (As a point of reference, Barack Obama has 448,400 MySpace friends.)