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November 2011

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Can I get that to go?

About 25 years ago I became familiar with White Castle through a friend from out East who called the small, square (…. greasy, salty, oniony, and a bit mushy…) burgers “sliders.”  Cheeseburgers were “sliders with vinyl.”  Every other product on the menu seemed to have a nickname, most not fit for this venue. 

Note, that at the time, if you walked up to the counter and ordered “10 sliders with vinyl” you would receive a very dirty look, and a curt correction about the product name. A few decades later, not only can you order sliders by the suitcase load, but White Castle has co-opted the colloquial name.  It has also become trendy to offer small, moderately greasy burgers as “sliders” at happy-hours, in spite of White Castle’s trademarking of the name.

In his book The Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki would call this move by a burger chain “flowing with the go.”  If the market gives you lemons, and you make lemonade, which they in turn use as battery acid, you are now in the battery acid business. 

Somehow, after much pain and suffering, White Castle bowed deeply to the concept that the very people who referred to the product in what was perceived as derogatory fashion were the most passionate about the product.  (Before going gluten-free my record was 17 in one sitting – plus onion chips and fries, of course.)

In the White Castle case, marketing management finally came to the conclusion the terms had become mainstream enough, with an ultimately positive edge, that embracing sliders made good marketing sense.  A few years ago, McDonalds briefly toyed with “Micky D’s” to chase the youth market, but this appeared to be short lived – at least as the promotion seeped into mainstream media.  The company may still be using it in youth-oriented programing or media beyond the radar of us older folks.

Meanwhile, all this has made me hungry.  Maybe I’ll go see my buddy James at the grill in Food For Thought to get a burger on gluten-free bread… but it won’t be the same.