State of the Brand :: by Jason Voiovich

A weekly discussion of how branding affects the world around you.

Firing Crispin won’t save the King

Posted on | March 28, 2011 | 1 Comment

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. After six consecutive losing quarters, Burger King’s new ownership group ousted long-time agency Crispin Porter.
2. Although the agency pulled off some impressive campaigns, one could argue they never settled on a theme and ran with it.
3. But it’s hard to say any amount of advertising would fix Burger King’s core demographic problem – a squeeze from McDonald’s on one side and high-end fast food on the other.

Agencies get this kind of news all the time.

Their corporate account “wants to go in a new direction”, “wants some fresh creative vision”, “feels its time for a change”, or any of the other hundred or so euphemisms that all mean the same thing: You’re fired.

Last week, we learned Miami agency Crispin Porter got the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech from fast food giant Burger King. (Officially, it was a “mutual agreement” to part ways. Mutual. Right.)

During a nearly eight year run, the BK/CP pair launched a series of groundbreaking, somewhat interesting, and occasionally downright bizarre ad concepts. Remember “Whopper Virgins”? That’s where remote Thai villagers, who had never had a burger, were given the choice between McDonald’s and Burger King. Unsurprisingly, they preferred flame-grilled burgers. But the real classic was “The King”, a human character in a strangely creepy king mask who served as a sort of jolly mascot for the chain, engaging in all sorts of quirky misadventures.

But regardless of what you might think of BK’s advertising over the past half-decade or so, the underlying goal was pretty simple: Unseat McDonald’s as the number one burger maker. And they didn’t even get close. In fact, BK has lost money in each of the last six quarters.

To be blunt, after 3G Capital bought the chain six months ago, and installed a new CEO, and a new CMO, Crispin getting the axe was about the biggest non-surprise I’ve heard all week.

We can look at this a few different ways. From an advertising perspective, Burger King is left with finding its “hook”. In other words, what’s the foundation of Burger King marketing efforts? Is it the food? Is it “flame grilled”? Is it the Whopper? Is it some variant on the King? Is it a direct assault on McDonald’s? Is it something else? To be fair to the new CEO who pulled this trigger on the shakeup, Crispin and BK never really answered that question. They never stuck to an idea and drove it home a la “Just Lovin’ It” (McDonald’s anthem to the good feelings you get when you come to in for a meal – they have it nailed).

You could also look at this from a target demographic perspective. Burger King’s target audience really isn’t McDonald’s target audience, even though they produce the same general menu. McDonald’s has a broad swatch of regular customers, but it’s core demographic is parents with small children. That’s why its advertising is so brilliant. By harkening back to the good feelings parents had coming with their parents to the restaurant, they want to share those feelings with their kids. Pair that with heavily advertised Happy Meal toys and (sadly, often) the only viable indoor playground in town, and you have a winning formula.

As much as it might lust after that demographic, Burger King doesn’t really connect with young parents. It’s target demographic is the oft-coveted 18-25 year old single male. As a group, he has plenty of discretionary income, few responsibilities, and little concern for his long-term health. Perfect for a 1500-calorie fat bomb at Burger King.

But this is a perfect transition into what I think is the core problem with Burger King: Poor differentiation within a quickly-evolving fast food marketplace. Put simply, there are more (and better) competitors today for the 18-25 year-old male’s fast food dollar than there were even five years ago.

Think about it for a second. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, if you wanted fast food, what were your choices? McDonald’s. Burger King. Wendy’s. Arby’s. KFC. Taco Bell. A few others. (Jack in the Box, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr, Popeye’s, etc never cracked double digits in most markets.) In that market, you could reasonably attempt to carve a sizable chunk of the buying audience.

That all changed with Subway. Now surpassing even McDonald’s in global restaurants, Subway gave even the 18-25 male demographic a viable alternative that didn’t leave you hunched over in indigestive pain later that night.

Since then, we’ve seen several other competitors fill the “high end” fast food space. Think Chipotle. Think Smashburger. They put traditional fast food giants BK, Wendy’s and Arby’s in a quite the pickle. Try to go down-market and you run into the McDonald’s juggernaut. They’ve already lost that battle. But try to improve food quality, and you run into the clearly-better class of higher end fast food (who never had to shed their “$0.99 value menu” image).

As is clear from financial results at Burger King (and Wendy’s, and Arby’s), they had yet to figure out a clear answer.

Put simply, I am not sure this is a problem any amount of advertising can solve. Fundamentally, advertising must work with what’s already there. Contrary to popular believe, we are not magicians – we cannot create a stable image of a company that cannot fulfill that promise.

If we do, it’s likely to fall apart. Crispin tried. I don’t think they ever had a chance.

Related Links:
Burger King Splits With Crispin


One Response to “Firing Crispin won’t save the King”

  1. Bruce Winslow
    March 30th, 2011 @ 2:47 pm

    Good analysis-when the buyout happened, I guessed the Agency would get the “new direction” line. Your point that Parents were duplicating their own McD experience with their kids was insightful and made me feel old! I agree that BK always seemed stuck on the young unattached male, not concerned with long term anything and the King mask character with guerilla tactics made me wonder what was that about? Enjoyed the post!
    Best Regards

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Jason Voiovich
director_corporate marketing, Logic PD
Black Belt
Caffeine Addict

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