Burger King: 'If something makes us slightly nervous, we're in a good place'

As Burger King kicks off a drive to reignite consumer love for its flagship sandwich, the Whopper, Campaign speaks to the brand and its UK agency BBH about why they have no choice but to be 'ballsy'.

It’s Wednesday 17 April 2019, aka Whopper Day, on which Burger King UK will give away tens of thousands of free Whoppers in the start of a long process to get the chain’s flagship product front of mind once again for UK consumers.

Part way into Campaign's lunchtime meeting with Katie Evans, who joined Burger King UK as marketing director in February last year, and Ian Heartfield, chief creative officer at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London – the agency Evans appointed in June without a pitch – Evans glances at her phone and makes a delighted exclamation: "We’ve overtaken Game of Thrones!"

Well, not in absolute cultural currency terms – but the Burger King app, through which Whopper fans must claim their free lunch, has just pushed ahead of HBO’s fantasy drama in Twitter’s current trending topics. The app hit 50,000 downloads in the first 24 hours of the campaign – about three times as many as it gets in a typical week.

Aside from the major promotion, the campaign also includes TV ads that began yesterday and will air through to August, along with more executions yet to be announced. The aim, Evans says, is "re-establishing Whopper. It’s our brand icon and something that has lost a little love, presence and prominence." Spontaneous consumer awareness of the Whopper is at 37% in the UK, far lower than in many other markets.

Heartfield recalls the sandwich being "iconic" during his college days, but recognises that this has not been the case in the past decade. "It was quiet – it was almost like the brand was resigned to its position," he says. "Nobody was really paying any attention." As a result, awareness of the Whopper is especially low among young consumers – a demographic that the brand’s bigger rival, McDonald’s, has done an unparallelled job of continuing to engage.

How BBH won the attention of Burger King

Evans was hired by Burger King’s UK chief executive Alasdair Murdoch, who started at the same time as her, and with whom she had previously worked at casual dining chain Gourmet Burger Kitchen. In that job, Evans achieved controversy by creating campaigns accused of mocking vegetarians and making puerile references to Donald Trump (right). "I’ve got form," she chuckles.

Before Evans and Murdoch joined the company, Burger King did not have a UK agency and relied largely on the brand’s global shop, David Miami – a situation that Evans felt made it tough for the brand to respond to the competitive challenges in this market.

While many markets are fairly price-driven, she says, in the UK "it’s very much around your brand of choice and the brand you love and your accessibility to that brand" – but Evans is also clear that the strength of McDonald’s operation here in terms of technology and marketing meant that, to compete, Burger King needed "a local agency with experience, but also one that would be brave".

BBH seemed to have the perfect credentials – it had created well-regarded work for KFC for 15 years, but lost the account to Mother the previous March. But while Evans agrees those credentials were a plus, she says it was actually a different client that attracted her attention.

"I was really impressed with their work on Tesco, particularly at a time when all the supermarket brands were in a bit of a battle to clarify what they stood for. Obviously price was the huge pressure, but they had to stand for something more than that," she says. "I just thought the ‘Food love stories’ campaign was an excellent one. Supermarkets are a really difficult one to crack. They’re so wide-reaching, it’s such a mainstream piece and it really needs to connect with everyone."

Since they began working together, Burger King has relocated its London office to round the corner from BBH’s office on Kingly Street in London's Soho – one factor in helping the two businesses develop a "really collaborative approach", meaning work can be signed off quickly.

Michael McIntyre vs Romesh Ranganathan

Unlike most brands, Burger King has never shied away from acknowledging its competitive set – both by consumers and often itself, the brand is defined in contrast to McDonald’s, whether for good or ill.

Evans sees this in two ways. She admits there is no point shying away from the strength and scale of McDonald’s, but suggests that her much smaller budget (and status) frees her from worrying about it too much.

"They’re obviously there, they’re a massive player, they’re hugely present," she says. "I respect a lot of what they’ve done and where they’ve taken their brand. But we’re playing our own game on this – we have to."

"We’re smaller and scrappier, so we’ve got to do this in the context of where we are against this behemoth and this machine," Heartfield agrees. "But a campaign like this [Whopper Day] proves you don’t always have to come at it through the lens of McDonald’s."

Being in this position means the brand has an obligation to embrace ideas that feel risky, Evans says: "That attitude is that if something makes us slightly nervous, we’re in a really good place. We can’t afford to churn out predictable campaigns – we need to be ballsy."

BBH is only on its second campaign – it follows last year's "The opportunity you haven't been waiting for", in which Murdoch personally appealed to consumers to test the new Crispy Chicken Burger.

(When BBH pitched the idea to Murdoch, Heartfield says, "his reaction was 'Oh, for fuck’s sake'  but then he rose to it. It just makes the idea so bulletproof – the man who runs the organisation is being that self-deprecating.")

It's early days, but Heartfield argues that BBH is drawing out a distinct tone of voice for the brand. To illustrate what that looks like, he offers an analogy that unsurprisingly compares Burger King with its rival.

"I love the fact that we’ve got the same sort of ingredients as McDonald’s [ie the TV ads feature customers ordering at a restaurant], but the tone is so different. If McDonald’s is kind of like Michael McIntyre – it’s nice, it’s sweet, it’s all things to all people – we’re more like Romesh Ranganathan: a bit angrier, deliberately funnier, edgier."

Asked if Burger King’s history of acclaimed and inventive marketing created any pressure to live up to its legacy, Heartfield says that, on the contrary, this was liberating because it offered "permission to behave a certain way". The client has been great for his department, he says, because his teams are continually coming up with unprompted creative ideas.

The customer both is and isn't always right

Of course, there are limits to being edgy – while the "Whopper mandate" print ad that ran on Tuesday claimed that customers would literally be banned from ordering anything else yesterday, Evans admits there is a large dollop of licence in this.

"We are ‘mandating’ only Whoppers, but we’re not gonna send someone home hungry if they want something else," she explains. Whether people could get an alternative product for free in the promotion was up to the store managers, Evans says, adding: "If someone walks away with something else, they will be invited back to correct their error and make the right choice and order a Whopper next time."

After the interview, Campaign visited Burger King’s store in Leicester Square, where there were such vast queues that we continued on to the (slightly) quieter location in Waterloo station. Among several customers redeeming their free Whopper, there were people paying for other items on the menu, with none of the promised pushback.

It’s certainly a funny idea to turn an army of busy fast-food staff into Ranganathan for the day and ask them to berate customers for ordering the wrong thing; pulling it off in practice is another thing altogether (although Campaign can't comment on what took place at the brand's 500-plus other locations). But if the campaign helps drive the 100% uplift in Whopper sales yesterday, and the 20-30% across the duration of the campaign that Burger King is hoping for, Burger King probably won't be too hung up on the nuance.

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