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Turning Adversity Into Advantage, Hon!

Turning Adversity into Advantage, Hon!

A Fallston Group Case Study.

Cafe Hon has been a popular fixture on the 36th Street main drag in Baltimore’s kitschy Hampden neighborhood since its 1992 opening. With a two-story tall pink flamingo perched over its doorway, the restaurant is a local landmark. Owner Denise Whiting sells “Hon” t-shirts and other merchandise and founded an annual HONfest that attracts attendees from all over the Baltimore metro area to celebrate the neighborhood’s wonderful quirks and creativity.

At the advice of her legal counsel to protect her business interests in opening a Hon-themed giftshop, in late 2010 Whiting trademarked the word “Hon.” The term of endearment has long had a close association with working-class Charm City and was even popularized in the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray as referring to a certain type of 1960s Baltimore woman with a beehive and cat-eye glasses. Because of these things, Whiting experienced an immediate backlash as soon as news of her new trademark spread.

The Crisis: People Hated That Whiting Owned “Hon”

Although her trademark did not preclude people from using “hon” in conversation, Whiting rapidly drew bad press from the free, tabloid-sized City Paper to the Baltimore Sun. The local community began to slander her name and boycott her restaurant and the HONfest. Protestors gathered outside Cafe Hon to hold signs reading “HONicide: Life on 36th Street” and “You Can’t Trademark Our Culture, Hon.” One former patron took to popping his head into the restaurant during business hours to scream, “NO ONE OWNS ‘HON’!” Even her fellow merchants on “The Avenue” turned against her over her acquisition of “Hon” rights. Meanwhile, Whiting’s business was suffering, and she had to withdraw tens of thousands of dollars from her own retirement account to make payroll. The intense personal and emotional toll these events took on Whiting cannot be quantified. No question, Whiting was an amazingly strong successful woman who was now challenged like she had never been before.

The Solutions: How Fallston Group Helped Whiting Restore Her Brand

Tell Your Story. Our mantra, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will. And, when someone else tells your story, it certainly won’t be the story you want told.” To regain the local community’s trust, having consistent and transparent messages were crucial. Fallston Group helped Whiting gain confidence while developing a core messaging and media plan. This focused on message points that Whiting could embrace as her own when talking with reporters, fellow business owners and customers. We encouraged and coached her so she would have confidence in telling her story to those who had an interest. Critically important were the varying audiences, messages, timing, platforms utilized and adaptations. 

Deal Head-on with Obstacles to Business as Usual. Fallston Group counseled Whiting about obtaining a peace order or filing criminal charges against anyone who was shouting into her restaurant, harassing her patrons, and threatening violence. Although people threatened to boycott the summer’s HONfest, we encouraged Whiting to continue her annual tradition. In our view, bulling and violence is not for free and those who believe they can victimize should be held accountable. Whiting proceeded with business as usual which was key to her success. It’s easy to be influenced by detractors, but that’s what they want you to do – quit. Whiting did not.

Be Realistic. The crisis was personally hard on Whiting, enough to jeopardize running her business and leading her life. Fallston Group helped her see that success should be measured by her continued ability to do what she had always done – own a well-run restaurant. This meant bringing people from negative to neutral about her and Cafe Hon rather than making them advocates out of the gate. To take the first step, we accompanied her to many meetings, including merchant association meetings attended by other business owners, managers, and elected officials. Remember, this was a game of chess, not checkers – a long-term strategy where victory results in one small move after another.

Know Which Battles to Fight. Although Whiting was solidly equipped legally about how trademarking “Hon”was something any sound business would do to protect its brand, in the end Whiting would win in the court of law but not in the court of public opinion. If you lose the latter, you don’t have a business. Again, Fallston Group routinely encouraged Whiting to look at the big picture. So, when she was contacted by celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares show, Whiting was eager to appear on national TV to tell people she was sorry and relinquish the term “Hon.” We felt this was the perfect opportunity to make a bold move and change the rules of engagement – move from defense to offense.  

The Result: Returning “Hon” Back to Baltimore

After shooting her Kitchen Nightmares episode, Chef Ramsay joined Whiting for a press conference at the sparkling, new Cafe Hon, renovated with even bolder, leopard-print decor than before. During the press event, a relieved and hopeful-sounding Whiting returned “Hon”to the city – she also communicated this via a local radio station. Later that evening, Denise got a good night’s sleep – the first time in a year. Today, more than a decade later and despite the pandemic, Whiting is still dishing up her Hon’s hot crab dip. As you can imagine, we’re huge Denise Whiting fans – she showed true character, compassion, and discipline while in the belly of the beast.

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