Burger King Fires the King in an Advertising Strategy Switch

Burger King recently “retired” the King character from their advertisements. Industry experts believe the king was forced to leave or be terminated. It’s unclear if there was a non-compete clause in his contract, but it widely assumed he received a substantial severance package.

Not only is the King gone, but so is long-time agency of record, Cripin, Porter + Bousky. After 7 plus years of countless dollars spent on building the King character, Burger King is pulling the plug on him.

While the King campaign created interest over the years, McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” campaign, starting at the same time remains strong. McDonald’s ate BKs lunch by increasing their market share by 3.2%, while Burger King’s market share fell to 1.4% since the campaigns launch. So much for monarchies.

The King isn’t the only fast food mascot to fall on hard times. While McDonald’s hasn’t officially retired Ronald McDonald, his contracted appearances have been drastically cut back. When was the last time we saw him on TV? The lack of visibility is attributed to the fact McDonald’s is facing pushback from a number of nutrition watchdog agencies who claim Ronald is selling to children. The gradual downplay of their mascot began a number of years ago, and now McDonald’s namesake character is kept alive through the Ronald McDonald Houses that help families whose children are facing dire illnesses.

So the real question is: why did the King campaign fail when it was so highly recognized? Gordon Bowen, the Chief Creative Officer at McGarryBowen (BK’s new agency) stated, “We’re re-igniting the latent feeling that people have about Burger King.” A loose definition of latent feelings would be feelings that are present and/or potential, but not active. With the creative switch, Burger King is moving from an agency (CP+B) that is known for edgy, hip fun advertising to a more mundane, unhip, conventional resource (McGarryBowen).

Burger King’s Senior Marketing Vice President Alex Macedo recently stated, “People want a reason to go back to Burger King,” which is why the chain is “modernizing” its stores and completely changing its image. Macedo added, “There are no plans to bring the King back anytime soon.”

The focus of new ads has moved away from targeting men in their late teens and twenties to moms. The new campaign launched 8/20/11 features a new guacamole infused sandwich called the California Whopper. As everyone knows, trends always start in California, right? Kids riding in mini vans with DVD players are probably not interested in guacamole Whoppers, but moms might be.

The golden rule of advertising is to create emotion that inspires action. The King campaign certainly created a lot of attention, but the drive, the desire, the action of purchasing Whoppers, fries and Cokes never really caught on.

In dealing with a very tight target audience, the overall “King Message” may have resonated with young males, but it missed the larger audience of everyone who ever chowed down on a Whopper with cheese. In fact, many people reported the frozen-faced, masked King character as “kinda creepy.” In one TV ad, he was bedside as a young male woke up. That may be fine for an 18 year old, but women don’t want to be startled from sleeping, especially from someone creepy and offering food.

Quite honestly, the “King Campaign” was extremely creative, but it failed to do one important thing; elevate and proclaim the product. In essence, the character became greater than the product.

By contrast, McDonald’s (for the most part) has developed excellent campaigns that play out over time, giving the general public the opportunity to accept and embrace the message. Well-worn phrases such as; “I’m Lovin’ It”,  “You Deserve a Break Today”, and “We Love to See You Smile” still resonate positively after years of use.

The new Burger King ads airing on TV are far away from the hip, fun, creative solutions previously offered. They do feature the product in an enticing way, but lack an overall emotional contact to the audience. They’re kind of ho-hum and standard.

Burger King has a rough uphill battle, and ditching years of identity building through a fictional character shows a clear concern of their faltering market share. Furthermore, introducing a guacamole sandwich to ignite latent feelings of previous customers might be a disconnect. What ever happened to “Have it Your Way” or “It takes two hands to handle a Whopper”?

It appears on the surface that the move away from the King mascot was wise, although several years too late. The current campaign is establishing a new mindset toward BK and it looks fairly bland. Future creative direction will need to be much more interesting and “connecting” to bring the masses back now that the King is gone.