Marketing Lessons Learned from Burger King

burger king logo

Experience can be a valuable source of learning, whether it is from our own experiences or observing the decisions and actions of others. Two news stories I read last week, both about Burger King, reinforced one of the most important lessons a marketer can learn. I was somewhat surprised because BK has made its share of missteps in recent years and has fought to remain relevant in the quick service burger category. So what was the lesson? It was simple yet powerful: Listen. Listen to what others are saying about you as well as listen to what is going on in the world around you.

Chicken Fries, Please

The first example of Burger King being attuned to the market can be found in the story behind its re-introduction of chicken fries. The menu item was pulled in 2012, but customers have not forgotten it. Tactics such as a petition, a Facebook group, and Twitter account all paid tribute to chicken fries and advocated their return to the menu. BK listened and has brought back chicken fries… albeit for a “limited time.” It would be understandable if market analysis and other tools of the trade led to the decision to eliminate chicken fries. But, BK had irrefutable evidence iin the form of customers longing, whining, begging, or otherwise demanding to bring back a product they liked. BK listened, and chicken fries are on the menu again.

Be in the Moment

A second example of BK showing why it is important to listen occurred last Monday as news broke about the death of Robin Williams. What would a burger restaurant have to do with the unexpected passing of a beloved entertainer? BK was scheduled to run a promoted trends ad for chicken fries on Twitter Monday evening. However, the real time conversations for which Twitter is known would surely be all about Robin Williams (and they were). Ads for fast food would not mesh well with public sentiment at such a delicate time. BK executives astutely arranged to pull the Twitter promotion. There would be other days to promote chicken fries; the moment was not right. Marketers must live in the moment, knowing when to seize an opportunity (such as the “blackout” during the 2013 Super Bowl) and when to defer to more important matters in the lives of their customers.

Ready to Listen?

Listening is perhaps the undervalued secret weapon in a marketer’s arsenal. The importance of solid communication skills is a given, but the focus tends to be on sending messages, not receiving them. We glorify the masterful copywriter and are in awe of the salesperson who can seemingly sell ice to Eskimos. Listening does not have the glamour of writing or presenting, but commitment to listening and understanding the world around us is essential for communication (and marketing) success).


A Great Brand Experience, not Imitation, Will Win Customers

I enjoyed a great discussion with my Principles of Marketing students yesterday about using price as a marketing strategy tool to fight competition. The case of Burger King going after McDonald’s dominance in the breakfast category was our topic. BK is offering a breakfast muffin sandwich for $1. A commercial for the product makes it clear that its inspiration is McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, but the point of difference is a $1 price. “It’s not original, but it’s super affordable” is the message.

To my surprise, the focus of the discussion quickly turned from using the Breakfast Muffin sandwich as a flanker brand to what is wrong with Burger King. The students’ lament: if you want a more profitable brand and higher market share, fix the brand experience. Several students shared stories of service failure they experienced at BK. One student said she called the corporate office to complain and gave my name saying that “you need to call my marketing professor so he can tell you how to fix Burger King!” I’m waiting on that call… not!

The issues raised by students in our discussion were a perfect segue to introducing the role of marketing communication. It is communication that supports the other elements of marketing strategy, but it must work in concert with other marketing mix elements. BK hired one of the hottest shops in the ad industry, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and the agency has delivered great work. However, as one of my students in another class pointed out, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. The same goes for building a great brand. Advertising and promotion is part of the equation for success, but creative campaigns cannot hide inferior product design, bad pricing strategy, or poor customer service.

For consumers today, brand relationships are often built on experiences. If you deliver a bad experience, why should you expect customers to be willing to repeat it? There are simply too many options to have to endure experiences that do not meet expectations. No one expects BK to begin white cloth table service, but giving customers a consistent experience positively reinforces the brand in their minds. It is an impact greater than a king with an enormous plastic head or a $1 breakfast sandwich could ever hope to make.

When Great Advertising Does Not Equate to Great Marketing

Crispin Porter + Bogusky is one of the hottest ad agencies around. One brand that has benefited noticeably from the creative influence of CP+B is Burger King. The brand was in shambles when CP+B became its agency five years ago. At the time, CP+B was BK’s fifth ad agency in four years, not a way to create continuity of brand meaning! Since becoming BK’s agency of record, CP+B has received accolades for work such as Subservient Chicken, The King character, and Whopper Freakout.

What is the one thing that CP+B has not done for BK? Gain market share. According to figures in an Advertising Age article, during the period 2003-2008 McDonald’s has seen its market share grow almost 3% to 46.8% while BK slipped 1.6 points to 14.2%. These numbers are a painful reminder that marketing is much more than advertising. McDonald’s has outperformed BK in targeting value conscious consumers. Also, McDonald’s has invested heavily in remodeling stores and adding coffee bars to compete with Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. McDonald’s has elevated the experience of visiting many of its locations. BK frequently comes under criticism for lackluster service and less than clean restaurants.

Building a great brand entails managing all customer touch points. Advertising is certainly one of those touch points, and the BK/CP+B partnership has made great strides in this area. BK has much work to do to make the overall experience of visiting a BK better. If that occurs, BK’s relevance among quick service restaurant patrons will rise and result in BK being a more viable competitor to McDonald’s.

Ad Age – “What Crispin’s Lauded BK Work Doesn’t Do” Gain Ground on MCD’s”

BK’s Latest Efforts to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Burger King has benefited from the influence of edgy ad agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky. Icons such as the Subservient Chicken and the King have put BK back on the radar screens of many fast food consumers. Pushing the envelope to get attention sometimes leads to getting paper cuts, as BK has found out. A recent Facebook promotion that offered users a free Whopper for “de-friending” 10 people was stopped because of concerns it violated Facebook’s privacy policies.

Now, BK has caught flack for two ads. One is a print ad running in Europe for a new “Texican Whopper” that features a short, squatty Mexican draped in the Mexican flag standing next to a tall American cowboy. The Mexican government has objected to the use of its flag in the ad. BK has agreed to stop running it.

A second ad is a TV commercial targets children. BK is promoting kids’ meals through an association with Spongebob Squarepants. The link with Spongebob is not objectionable (after all, who could find fault with someone with a work ethic like his?). The issue is the execution of the message. The King character is doing a re-mix of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” The use of this song and the images of dancing girls with big square butts has drawn complaints from child advocacy groups.

Does the decision to create edgy ad messages necessitate that one accept the likelihood that an ad could be offensive to someone? The answer appears to be “yes.” It seems that BK and its ad agency could have realized these ads would offend some people. Killing these ads before they bowed would have created less controversy for the brand… or is that what BK wants? Some people are offended by the ads and have complained, while some people probably like them and have shared with others. In both cases, people are talking about BK, and that could be the overarching goal.