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BRUCE HOROVITZ / Marketing

Burger King's New Ad Recipe: Hold the Hype

June 27, 1989|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Burger King has big plans to wipe the smile off Ronald McDonald's face.

Later this summer, Burger King will unleash a $200-million ad campaign--closely tied to a new marketing strategy--that insiders say will try to completely reposition the perennial fast-food also-ran as a feisty, friendly, family place that will go far out of its way to make customers happy.

Much of the campaign is still in the works or under wraps. And until now, officials have refused to reveal any details of the upcoming ads. But in interviews, top executives from Burger King and its two recently named New York advertising agencies said Burger King is about to begin an ambitious drive to persuade consumers that the fast-food chain is going to change for the better. Executives say many of the ads will feature Burger King employees and customers who not only talk about Burger King, but also about themselves.

"American consumers are tired of hype," said Gary Langstaff, executive vice president of marketing at Burger King. "When you use real people in ads, people can see it's not hype. Real people reflect the reality of what you get when you walk into one of our stores."

Burger King officials have hired consultants to help them carefully select employees from among 250,000 workers nationwide to get this message across. "Our employees deserve credit for the long hours they work day in and day out," said Langstaff. "You can bet your bippy we'll use them in our ads."

They won't be the first to test this method. From time to time, McDonald's has used real people in its campaigns. "They've been some of our most successful commercials," said Paul D. Schrage, chief marketing officer of McDonald's. An advertisement several years ago that featured an older woman who worked for a McDonald's store won plenty of industry praise. "Using real people can make for very effective advertising," said Schrage, "but if it's done wrong, it can also be very ineffective."

Obviously, Burger King officials think that they can do it successfully.

For nearly five years, Burger King sales have been flatter than a burger on the griddle. Annual sales per store have stayed at about $1 million while McDonald's posts about $1.5 million per store. And several of Burger King's ad campaigns have been veritable industry laughingstocks. Who can forget the bespectacled Herb, the nerd? And who can remember slogans such as "Best food for fast times," or for that matter the soon-to-be-axed slogan, "We do it like you'd do it?"

"Everything they've done has been poor copies of McDonald's," said Robert H. Schmidt, president of the New York ad firm Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver. "They've been thoroughly out-marketed."

But things may be changing. Since the British conglomerate Grand Metropolitan purchased Burger King's parent company, Pillsbury, in December, executives have been carefully penciling a new marketing strategy for Burger King. They quickly named two new ad agencies--instead of one--to handle the business and charged each with separate tasks. Executives boldly promise that upcoming Burger King ads will be a clear departure from current fast-food advertising. For example, some of the commercials are expected to be aired without jingles. Executives believe that this will help get across the seriousness of Burger King's commitment to improvements at the chain.

And after years of focusing ads on "flame-broiled" burgers, Burger King executives are now convinced that their menus actually have little to do with the reason people often prefer to go to McDonald's instead of Burger King.

"It just doesn't make any sense to focus on one aspect of the product," said Edward L. Wax, chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, which is in charge of Burger King's promotional advertising. "That's far too narrow."

While Burger King tied its fortune to flame broiling, it was ignoring what is perhaps its most important customer, said Roy Bostock, president of the New York ad agency D'Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, which will create Burger King's national ad campaign. "Flame broiling has absolutely no appeal to kids."

Burger King executives now believe that the overall experience of eating at Burger King has to be vastly improved. And those improvements--from cleanliness to friendliness--have to be carefully communicated in ads. "People are not rejecting Burger King because of the food," said Lee Kovel, senior vice president and group creative director at the ad agency J. Walter Thompson, which created Burger King ads for years. "Clearly the problem is in the experience of eating there. Burger King is right to focus on that."

These improvements will be advertised step by step over the coming months, but only as the improvements are actually made. The new campaign is expected to mostly focus on two things: service and image.

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