After Justice Holdings acquired Burger King this month, it announced a major rebranding and image change, updating its menus and adding to its management ranks.The chain has struggled with a decline in sales since 2008. It lost its No. 2 spot to Wendy’s in March.
The new branding is supposed to be a fresh start. But just as things were looking up, a spot featuring Mary J. Blige outraged consumers with its racial stereotypes.
Most brands can move past controversies like this with a heartfelt apology and a donation to charity. For Burger King, however, this is just the latest is a string of marketing blunders it’s committed over the past four years. Coupled with the recession and the growing success of McDonald’s and Wendy’s, Burger King couldn’t be in more trouble.
Things had been bad at Burger King for a long time: through the late 1990's, revenues were declining, market share was down, and the company was tied with Wendy's for the No. 2 fast-feeder spot. So when then-owner Diageo sold Burger King in 2002 to TPG Capital for $1.5 billion, the company looked at the deal as a clean slate.
In 2003, Burger King's then-chief marketer Russ Klein hired Crispin Porter + Bogusky as the chain's ad agency. CP+B, under charismatic chief creative Alex Bogusky, was the hottest, hippest ad agency in the U.S. The stage was set for a comeback.
One of CP+B's first major decisions to was to resurrect 'The King,' a brand icon the company had ditched in the 1980s.
The decision would prove fateful.
In the U.K., a Burger King started selling a gourmet burger for $190.
'The idea is to change perceptions by pushing the envelope to raise awareness of our ambitions,' Mark Dowding, Burger King's head of product and innovation for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told Ad Age. 'We have emphasised the quality to create noise and interest in the market.'
The recession was in full swing and the PR stunt made BK look out of touch.
CP+B revived the brand by bringing back the company's mascot, 'The King,' and reverting to the tried-and-true slogan 'Have it your way.'
As an extension of that slogan, the agency created 'Subservient Chicken,' a website where consumers could type commands and watch a giant chicken act them out. The website had 20 million hits in the first week.
The 'Whopper Freakout' campaign saw Burger King employees telling customers the famous sandwich had been discontinued and recording their reactions. The campaign resulted in double-digit increases in quarterly sales that year.
To increase sales, the chain decided to zero in on 'super-fans': 18-to-34 year old men. While the sense of humour the brand used may have engaged that group, it alienated many others.
This ad ran in Singapore in 2009, but annoyed women all over the world.
It was the first in a series that drew anger from consumers ...
This taste-test campaign had rural Romanian farmers, Thai villagers and those living in Greenland's icy tundra--people who had never eaten a burger before--compare the Whopper to the Big Mac.
Sharon Akabas of the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University told The New York Daily News: 'What's next? Are we going to start taking guns out to some of these remote places and ask them which one they like better?'
Brian Morrissey of Adfreak likened the commercials to colonialism, saying it's 'embarrassing and emblematic of how ignorant Americans still seem to the rest of the world.'
This commercial, which promoted the Texican Whopper, depicted a tall American cowboy living with a much smaller Mexican wrestler.
- The ads 'improperly used the stereotyped image of a Mexican.'
- In the spot, the wrestler is wearing the Mexican flag as a cape. The country has a tradition of respect for its flag and has strict rules about how it is used.
It's not surprising why: The ad, which ran in Spain, depicts Lakshmi sitting on top of a ham sandwich--a sacred religious figure from a vegetarian religion selling meat.
This commercial shows The King running through an office to give a woman a sandwich, while he is chased by two orderlies.
Dr. Trula LaCalle, Executive Director of National Alliance of Mental Health Illness California commented, 'It's denigrating, that kind of advertising.' She added, 'That stereotyping reduces people's ability to feel pride and dignity in themselves when they've been suffering from a mental illness, and they're in recovery from that.'
For a SpongeBob Square Pants promotion targeting children, Burger King created a spot that used a remixed version of Sir Mix-a-Lot's 'Baby Got Back.'
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) launched a letter-writing campaign demanding that Nickelodeon and Burger King pull the 'highly sexualized' ad.
'Our research showed that breakfast is a male-centric audience for Burger King; it doesn't resonate as well with women--we are targeting the people who are buying breakfast.'
A 2010 commercial showed a mailman admitting he shirked his responsibilities in order to eat the chain's French toast sticks and 'Double Crossain'wich.'
USPS successfully sued Burger King for using its logo and likeness of its uniform, and the company was forced to revise the spot.
This commercial also angered dog lovers, who didn't appreciate the stereotype of dogs biting mailmen.
'Whopper Freakout' put the company ahead of the industry in terms of growth in 2008. But by spring 2009 Burger King had fallen behind again and a number of stores closed. Same-store sales declined 5 per cent in Q2 2009.
'We've been impacted because of marketing faux pas,' said a franchisee to Ad Age. 'And I can't imagine that on some level didn't impact this particular announcement.'
A big issue with Burger King's marketing strategy was that it was only talking to young male 'super fans.' Ad Age reported that 29 per cent of Burger King customers in 2010 were actually over 50 years old.
Bob Garfield of Ad Age described him best:
'Likewise the King ... is not only un-animated but frozen in place, a grotesque death mask of a grin, like something out of a John Carpenter movie. You don't know whether you're going to have it your way or he's going to have his way with you.'
Then commercials started showing him sneaking into people's bedrooms. It was enough for Time to name The King one of the 10 creepiest brand mascots.
The King was killed eventually off in 2011, before the Burger King movie got off the ground.
The marketing chief took a leave of absence and said cryptically that he was, 'Simply 'sharpening the sword.' And the bigger the dragon waiting for me when I return, the better. That's all you need to know. Print it.'
It's never good news when the CMO disappears without a real explanation. So it was no surprise when Klein officially left Burger King three months later, in November. (He eventually cited exhaustion from the intensity of the job.)
Klein is now CMO at another fast-feeder, Arby's.
- Natalia Fraco left Burger King in February 2011 after only nine months as CMO.
- North American CMO Mike Kappitt left the company in December 2010.
- Tia Lang, Media and Interactive Director, left the company in July 2011. At the same time, it was reported by Ad Age that a number of marketing employees were offered severance packages.
Flavia Faugeres is currently the CMO of Burger King.
In 2010, Burger King was sued twice by its the National Franchisee Association, which represents BK's own restaurant owners:
- Franchisees claimed that they were losing money on some products because they were not allowed to sell them for more than one dollar.
- Franchisees sued earlier in 2010 to stop Burger King from stealing millions of dollars in annual rebates due to franchisees from soda companies. Burger King would have used those dollars for advertising, which franchisees were also upset with.
In March 2011, Burger King issued a statement that it had parted ways with Crispin Porter + Bogusky after seven years.
Alex Bogusky, no longer with the agency, saw it differently:
'When you work in the industry and head up an agency, you tend to have to shut up and take it. Just release some nice quote about 'creative differences' and how you wish your former client all the best. Now, not so much. We fired Miller and it was a decision I'll always be proud of for lots of reasons beyond the work. And my guess is that CPB decided it was time to part with BK. It might have been a mutual decision in the end but my hunch is that they had too much creative integrity to do the kind of work the new BK team was asking for. And I'm proud of them if that's what went down.'
CP+B may (or may not) have resigned one of its biggest accounts, but in early 2012 it was rewarded with the Arby's account by Russ Klein, without a review.
In 2008, while Burger King and Domino's were still on his client roster, Bogusky published a diet book called 'The 9-inch Diet' which encouraged readers to cut down on their portion size. The back cover promised that 'The best tricksters in the industry explain how you as a consumer are being duped and how you are actually part of the conspiracy to make you fat.'
An executive at Burger King at the time told Ad Age that the company had not authorised the book and felt blindsided when they read about it.
Then, shortly before leaving the agency in 2010, Bogusky took to his blog to express his disapproval of advertising to children. He mentioned that while Burger King had discussed pulling its kids advertising, in the end the money the company could make won out over ethics.
'When it comes to advertising to children, it's much more difficult to find any redeeming value created by the activity. In fact, to the contrary, it is easy to see how destructive the process is to most of us,' he wrote.
- In July 2011, Mindshare 'proactively resigned' the $300 million media buying account, according to executives familiar with the situation.
- The same month, Edelman and Burger King parted ways. The company, which had worked with Burger King since 2005, had been invited into a review, but declined to pitch the business again.
Burger King tried to keep up with McDonald's, which had a 49.5 per cent market share, but Wendy's was the real threat. With higher-quality menu items, and a revamp of its stores, Wendy's finally surpassed Burger King in late 2011.
Burger King went public for the first time in 2006. Then it became private in 2010. And in April 2012, it announced it will go public, again.
Mary J. Blige slammed the company after starring in one of its commercials, claiming the final version was not what she signed on for.
The rest of the country was outraged that Blige was about 'crispy chicken,' which played up racial stereotypes.
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