On the face of it, Benihana is a pretty simple restaurant which ought to mean just one thing in the mind of its customers: teppanyaki, the form of tableside cooking/entertainment for which they are famous.
I like the notion of businesses owning one word in the mind of the customer. While I’m not sure where it originated, Ries and Trout are big believers in this marketing concept. See, for example, Positioning, The New Positioning, virtually any of the Immutable Laws books, or the recent book by Jack Trout (not to be confused with the flyfishing guide) In Search of The Obvious: The Antidote for Today’s Marketing Mess.
Examples: Volvo means/meant safe. Siebel meant sales. PeopleSoft meant HR. At this point, I think Oracle means software. I’m not sure what Microsoft means. To me, Sun meant struggling. SAP meant ERP for a long time; I’m less sure what it means now. They would like it to mean clear, but there’s often a difference between what marketing puts in the ads and what sticks in the mind of the customer. LinkedIn means colleagues, or maybe jobs. Facebook means friends. Twitter means tweets, an example of inventing your own word which can work really well or be a total catastrophe such as fahrvergnügen.
I understand why teppanyaki doesn’t work in terms of word ownership for Benihana. The word is not well known, it’s hard to pronounce, and it’s harder to spell. There’s also the confusion with the word hibachi, which the restaurant seems to foster. So I get why perhaps teppanyaki doesn’t work as Benihana’s word, but I don’t get how Benihana came to mean birthday instead.
Many years ago, my kids started taking/dragging us to Benihana on their birthdays. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But now that I’ve done it multiple times/year for several years, I can say first-hand that every time I got to Benihana virtually every table (of eight) has at least 1 and sometimes 2 people celebrating a birthday. And, by the way, the place is always jammed.
How did this come to pass? Frankly, I don’t know.
Yes, they do an allegedly bi-lingual happy birthday song and free photo for those who claim/admit it’s their birthday. But that certainly can’t be enough to reposition the entire restaurant from “the place for wacky tableside grilling” to “the place for birthdays.” Yes, if you dig around you can find a $30 coupon for use on your birthday, but I doubt that’s it, either.
For now, it appears to be a great mystery of organic repositioning. For no matter what they’re trying to do at a marketing level, somehow they have been positioned in the only place it counts — the mind of the customer — as the place for birthdays.