Pop Goes The Cheesecake Factory's Current Branding Campaign

It took nearly half a year, but I finally made a new friend out here in the suburbs. His name is Jack and he's a wellspring of positive energy, quick with a high-five and enthusiastic if unintelligible salutations. Unlike my college pals and professional peers, he lights up in my presence. He's a terrific guy.

He's also 15 months old, a member of my kid's day-care posse and, judging by his habit of affixing himself to my lower leg, severely underhugged at home. Nonetheless, Jack's joyous reaction upon my arrival at "school" never fails to lift my mood, ranking behind only my kid's frenzied dash-crawl dad-ward on my list of daily gratifications. Unrelated: If there's a Match.com for sturdy platonic adult relationships, ones in which my needs for rigorous intellectual debate will be better met, please zip over the link.

Anyway, thanks to my kid and Jack, to me joy smells like babies - which is to say, like poop commingled with traces of stewed potato. But to some confused souls navigating tourist-crammed thoroughfares in advance of the holidays, joy apparently smells like a lower-upper-middle-class chain restaurant.

For reasons that make less than a whit of sense, the Cheesecake Factory sent a comely balloon brigade to New York City and injected their balloons (their literal balloons, not their perv-colloquial ones) with some kind of magical scentification balm. When passersby took a cue from the helpful "pop it" inscription on the balloons' exterior, they were treated to the olfactory equivalent of the Rose Bowl parade (peppermint! chocolate! Drakkar Noir!). Cameras captured it all, or at least the cute parts. Ergo: "What Does Joy Smell Like?"

I'm not up to date with my chain-restaurant branding, beyond Applebee's "we have beer, nachos, chairs AND fully operational bathrooms" appeal, so I might be missing something. The questions arrive with the frequency of free soda refills: Has the Cheesecake Factory decided to abandon its current brand proposition (salmonella-free dining/abundant parking) in favor of an olfactory-based approach? If your name is the Cheesecake Factory and you specialize in cheesecake, why not put images of cheesecake on the balloons? Why not ditch the balloons and get straight to the free cheesecake? Etc.

The humanoid-on-the-street reactions are equally confounding - "whoa!" and "smells all scenty-like!" as opposed to "in this era of airborne viruses, why on earth are you unleashing chemical-based pongs upon a frazzled citizenry?" While I'll allow that the Cheesecake Factory out-odors its peers - especially Houston's, where every intake of oxygen is tinged with artichoke-dip vapor - I don't get the sensory connection. And I especially don't get the "magic" about which the clip's YouTube blurb enthuses ("on a cold and grey December day The Cheesecake Factory filled the air with a bit of magic… and Cheesecake").

Maybe this would be a more powerful proposition if there were some emotional bond being forged, or if it were paired with some kind of cheap holiday-based tie-in (say, an active-duty soldier jetting in from Camp Leatherneck to surprise his family for Christmas, bearing cheesecake in biblical abundance). Absent any of that, the clip amounts to little more than a bunch of random people on the street, smelling nice smells. Next time, just show us the desserts.

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