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Case Study: Burger King

Client: Burger King
Agency: Crispin Porter & Bogusky
Award: Yellow Pencil / Interactive & Digital Media / Consumer Websites / 2005

There was a time when there were no significant American advertising agencies outside New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Then Wieden + Kennedy began making a name for themselves in Portland, Oregon, and Fallon started making waves from Minneapolis. Even so, no-one believed an agency in Florida could ever make the big time. Miami was just too far from where the big clients held sway.

When, in January 2004, Burger King appointed Crispin Porter + Bogusky to handle their advertising, the business press was, frankly, amazed. It wasn’t just because what had been regarded as a creative boutique was now playing with the seniors as much as the fact that Burger King was in a challenging position and needed to effect significant change. Often, this type of situation induces corporate paralysis. Companies become more conservative rather than more adventurous. The result is thrombosis.

Burger King were brave. Bravely they acknowledged that a sharper communications strategy might be the route to improving market share, bravely they sought to talk to the agencies with reputations for visible, effective work and bravely they went to Florida.

Andrew Keller remembers that in January 2004 “We were given a week to put together a presentation that would include everything from instore to online. It was crazy but fun. We thought we might get a project from BK but not the whole lot, not the whole account.” But that’s what happened. Impressed with what they saw of the work and the people at CP+B, Burger King appointed the agency to handle their entire advertising needs.

Subservient Chicken

There was no time for ceremonies. Burger King needed new advertising out in the marketplace and they needed it fast. But, you know, speed is an ally in getting out great work,” says Andrew Keller, Creative Director at the agency for BK. “Pressure is positive. When you have too much time, you get bored with ideas and move on before you should. Also, it gives the client space in which to kill your babies."

Subservientchicken.com was only one piece in a large range of advertising materials presented to the client in that January pitch. By February it was in pre-production along with a raft of TV commercials, including one to be shot by Rocky Morton featuring a man in a chicken suit being subservient.

When the commercials were shot, a small agency team borrowed the chicken suit and raced off to an apartment nearby, which they had rented for the day. There, on DV camcorder, they filmed their own Chicken Man.

No star director, no big production number, just a few people experimenting. It may even have been one of the creative team inside the chicken suit – no-one is saying. (One consequence of subservientchicken.com’s success is the agency now gets the directors of its TV spots to shoot the online video as well.)

The idea was simply to extend the life of the TV commercial with an online version. No-one could have predicted that the website would acquire a life of its own. And what a life. To date, subservientchicken.com has received 442 million hits and 16.5 million unique visits. Most of the people visiting the site have no idea of the television work it was originally intended to support.

Intriguingly, the website was never formally launched. It was uploaded internally and sent to a handful of people at both client and agency for them to look at. Someone mailed it on to a friend outside and that was it. Whoosh! It was in the public domain and travelling at incredible speed.

“A lot of people really thought what they were watching was live – a man in a suit who responded to their commands in real time. And they were ringing up saying, how do you do that? There was massive interest. It was like magic,” muses Keller before adding, “But that’s when I saw the dark side to the internet as well. There were people trying to hack into the site and subvert it, trying to figure out its commands.”

He suggests there is a valuable learning in that. The internet will also bring you into contact with those who are antibrands and anti-advertising, irrespective of how “cool” your site is. It is best to be prepared for their attempts to subvert or pervert your message.

Behind subservientchicken.com and all the other work presented in January 2004 was a big idea. Like so many big ideas, it may not have looked all that bulky at first. Indeed, it was an idea Burger King had already used, albeit some time ago. Back in the 70s, BBDO New York had run a campaign with the line “Have it Your Way.”

Crispin Porter + Bogusky retrieved this thought from the archives and built all their advertising around it. For BK, the dilemma was whether to abandon their positioning around ‘fire-grilled’. They had invested much time and money into what they saw as being a differentiating proposition.

“We’d done a lot of work with MINI,” says Keller, “And what we learned from research is that people really want to express themselves these days. Everyone is trying to be a bit different to everyone else. Other manufacturers are talking about ‘mass customisation’ too.

Well, we took that learning across from automobiles to burgers and said to BK, ‘Have It Your Way’ is what you should be saying. The tagline had only run a few times back in the past and yet people could still remember it.” BK, under attack from McDonalds, Wendy’s and Subway, bought the argument.

Subservient Chicken standing on the couch

‘Have It Your Way’ was an integrated idea from the very start. It wasn’t a TV campaign that was extended into other channels but a base-camp for all communications to move out from. “The work isn’t all identical,  every spot, every ad, every microsite featuring the same executional details. We had a theme and that’s what we were integrating,” explains Keller. 

“So in the ‘Lunchbreak’ commercials, you see office workers literally having their burgers the way they personally like them. Then there’s Dr. Angus at www.angusdiet.com, and he clearly has it his way and helps you have it your way.”

Today, there is less talk of above and below the line. Clients look for strategic partners to help them establish a clearly differentiated position and a differentiated personality across all media channels. Those agencies that are still media-driven rather than consumer-centric have their faces set to the 1980s when broadcast media guaranteed you mass audiences.   CP+B is most definitely one of the world’s more forward-looking agencies. Even when briefed to produce a TV campaign, creative director Alex Bogusky is said to insist on seeing poster ideas first.

Nothing forces distillation quite like a poster. Only when an idea will condense down to a simple and quick message will he give the goahead to proceed to writing scripts. He knows now the idea will work at any number of different consumer touchpoints, TV just one among many. Keller calls it “a cocktail approach.”

“We don’t want to do ads as much as we want to influence popular culture. People want change and we can have fun helping them make those changes,” he says. The agency has also integrated its creative people.

Subservient Chicken

It is customary for a writer and art director to work as a pair. At CP+B, things are more fluid. Keller agrees. “I came from a music background and when you play in a band you get used to working with several people, five, twelve even, all combining ideas.

It’s the same on the Burger King account. Art Director, Mark Taylor and Copywriter, Bob Cianfrone came up with the TV idea, Jeff Benjamin, our interactive creative director, said, why don’t we go online as well and then there’s Alex always saying, ‘What else can we do? How can we push it further?’ We work as a team. There are no individual stars so the idea always ends up bigger than any one guy could make it on his own.” Sounds easy but isn’t.

“People come here wanting to see how we do it, because we make advertising people like and which works and they think there’s some magic to it, but actually it’s just hard work. The fact is, the more you do, the better the odds are on you doing something good. We just keep going at it until we get it. If the client doesn’t like what we do, that’s fine, we don’t get all temperamental about it, we just get down to it again. We are not confrontational at all.”

Mark Spates, Associate Manager, Interactive and Media at Burger King, assents. “Collaboration is important to us. I would say we talk ten times a day outside of the regular meetings and presentations. We talk ideas. I’ll say, ‘Hey I saw this website, how can we take it and make it better?’ and they’ll call me with ideas. It’s ebb and flow in free communication and we do it together.”

Spates supports the view that the success of subservientchicken.com has done two important things for the brand. Firstly, it has given it credibility. Secondly, it has given it permission. “What we did was use the web in a completely new and different way. Up until then there had been webisodes and video material you could get online but it was essentially passive. Subservientchicken.com was interactive. It was one-to-one, you and the chicken. That was new. Also, it said, we just want you to have fun with this. There was no desire for your e-mail address or anything. What we take out of this is the importance of bringing entertainment to our consumers because that’s how we come to feature in their lives.”

Subservient Chicken

Taking its cue from CP+B’s holistic approach to communications, Burger King now actively seeks to engage with its customers in as many places as possible and in as many different ways. One new extension of the subservient chicken is as a Halloween mask.  Spates again. “Why are we selling Halloween masks? Why not? It’s just one more way of tapping into social currency. Already we’re seeing viral pick-up of the masks and people liking what we’re doing.”

In terms of the permission, what subservientchicken.com has done is throw the windows open on new ways of talking to people at Burger King. With the agency, they are now looking at engaging with their consumers through their cell phones, via online games, and, most recently, podcasting. Music is already on the menu, at Coqroq.com, where again the chicken gets to extend its wings, this time into heavy metal on a spoof fanzine website. 

Behind it all there’s now a real band, looking to have a hit record and play live gigs, but you can download ring-tones, buy tee-shirts and, “this is cool”, if you come across a piece of music and don’t know what it is, play it on your phone to the website for 15 seconds. By reply you’ll get a text back telling you what the song is and who is singing it. Why? Why not, as Spates says. “Usually, you market to people on the net only when they want your marketing. So our strategy is simply to try to get a look-in on their lives,” he says. “It’s about leveraging emerging technologies in order to engage.”

Chickenfight.com was yet another example of the chicken finding new ways to entertain online. Like subservientchicken.com, behind it is a painfully simple advertising idea. At Burger King youcan choose to have your meal in a variety of different combinations. Thousands of agencies for thousands of clients have tackled the problem of choice. Hmm, which is better, our traditional recipe chicken or new spicy chicken in a bun?

Step 1 in the creative solution was to dramatise a fight between two chickens, representing the two styles. Stage 2 was when someone said, “Now how can we get a guy in Kansas to fight with a guy in Denver?” Such is the culture in the brand team, the response from client was: well, let’s go and find the technology to do it.

The site reached a million hits on some days during the promotion. Spates concedes they are numbers any other marketer would think brilliant but subservientchicken.com is a tough act to follow. “There has been huge pressure to repeat it but we do know you can’t hit a home run every time and that something like subservientchicken.com is rare but what it’s done is encourage us to innovate, innovate, innovate.” Many of the learnings went into CP+B’s next major online foray, Angusdiet.com, featuring lifestyle guru Dr. Angus and his ‘Eating the Angus Diet.’

Subservient Chicken

If subservientchicken.com was an accidental “brand toy”, an amusing way of engaging the interest of bored, ad-averse folk within just three or four seconds, hoping to keep them for as many as three or four minutes, then Dr. Angus was designed to give you, the surfer, as much control as possible. Do you clean your house too much? Send All Staff e-mails? Slump on the sofa too often? Dr. Angus gives verbal advice which you can edit and download, or tailor to send to a friend. Clever stuff, deliberately so.

Either you like it or you don’t So, what of the results of all this innovation? Keller reflects. “Well, a lot of agencies told us we were crazy to take on Burger King, that they’d pull us down when they went down. With our first TV work, directors who usually were clamouring to work with us suddenly became shy but now everyone wants to get a piece of it.” He goes on to say, “Russ Klein, Chief Marketing Officer for Burger King, and the top people at BK are generous in singling out the advertising as a big reason for the turnaround.” And turnaround there has been. Burger King Chairman and CEO Greg Brenneman recently announced that they have seen their sixth consecutive quarter of positive comparative sales in the US.

Keller believes that the advertising made BK visible. “You’d drive past a Burger King and you just wouldn’t notice it. Now you have to make a decision about the brand. Either you like it or you don’t. That’s a significant change. Now when you drive past a Burger King, you see it. A friend of mine called me recently to say she was in a Burger King having breakfast and she didn’t know why.”

When pressed to talk about winning Silver at D&AD he laughs. “I’d just about given up on D&AD. They are almost impossibly hard to win. But, you know, when you ask me what I’m proudest of, it’s not subservientchicken.com or the TV spots, which also got in The Book, it’s the cups and bags.” Keller had identified the bags you get your fries in and the cups for your Cola as perhaps the most important communication channel of all for his client.

“That space is worth the equivalent of two Superbowl commercials each month and they weren’t doing anything with it. Worse, they were giving it away to Disney and Co whenever they ran a joint promotion.”

Next time you’re in a Burger King in the US, read your bag. The story about bagglers, those last, tasty fries that linger at the bottom, is also the story of an agency that believes in joined-up thinking and a client that is prospering from it.

If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Professional Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.

For more creative inspiration and the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s best design and advertising, join us at D&AD Festival.
 

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