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Reviving a Stale Brand: Burger King


In 1974, Burger King launched “Have It Your Way," an exceptionally successful ad campaign. It blunted the impact of McDonald’s also successful Big Mac campaign: “two-whole-beef-patties-pickles-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickle-onions-on a sesame seed bun.” But customer expectations have dramatically changed in the 50 years since that campaign was launched. Personalization is table-stakes when Starbucks has over 44,000 ways to customize its drinks profitably. Additionally, by emphasizing personalization, Burger King shifted its focus away from its food, breaking the cardinal rule of food advertising: focus on appetite appeal.

The good news is that Burger King has another, more powerful legacy -- "Flame-broiled" -- and that's the appetite-stimulating legacy they need to claim.


Flame-broiled is also a magical phrase in food. It conveys what few words can: “delicious” AND “healthy." These 2 opposing ideas create a powerful tension, a cognitive dissonance relieved by the purchase of the product. Here’s how. We all want to eat healthily. Tomorrow. But today, when I leave my office to get lunch, I want something delicious. My diet starts tomorrow. Flame-broiled looks delicious. But it also gives customers the rationale they need – it’s flame-broiled, so it's healthier than a pan-grilled burger. When I worked at Taco Bell, I conducted interviews with fast food customers, and they told me this: I like to eat healthy….I eat a Whopper because it's healthy….well, it has lettuce and tomato, and it’s flame-broiled.” What magical words can you own in the minds of your customer? Is there a creative tension in your customer’s mind that you can resolve?

3. ENSURE ALIGNMENT BETWEEN OPERATIONS AND MARKETING One of the primary jobs of a CEO is to ensure alignment between the brand and store operations. Store operations must deliver on the brand positioning, and a brand positioning must be executable by store teams. If “tastes better because it’s flame-broiled” is your positioning, then store operations need to support it. But here’s the problem: Burger King no longer flame broils their burger to order. They take a frozen patty, put it through the broiler, pop it into a warming bin, and then microwave it when the customer orders. All that handling dries the burger out and reduces its flavor. Plus, the customer needs to see the proof: flame-broiled.

4. REVIVE YOUR OPERATING LEGACY If I can get a fast-casual pizza in 3 minutes, why can’t I get a burger flame-broiled to order? When reviving a brand legacy, don’t ignore the operating legacy that made your brand famous in the first place – an entrepreneurial mentality. Jeff Bezos refers to it as Day One thinking. The founders of Burger King created an Insta-broiler that allegedly pumped out 400 burgers per hour. The franchisees who took over the business found that it frequently broke down. So they took the Insta-broiler to a machine shop and redesigned it in 3 weeks, using a gas grill called the "flame-broiler.” It cooked burgers over an open flame, unlike most fast-food chains, which used flattop griddles. (1) That’s Day One thinking.


What if this WERE Day One? I’d invest in equipment and process to modernize the crew journeys to deliver a flame-broiled burger to order. Then I’d raise the price. Why? Because when customers see an effort in making a product, they value it more. A machine-made sweater, meh, but a handmade sweater, yay! In Behavioral Science, it’s called the Labor of Love. It explains the ubiquitous use of the word “artisan” in the food industry. It’s also why there are open-kitchen restaurants; we value effort. Think of Inn and Out. You see potatoes turned into fries before your eyes. You appreciate your burger more because you see it made. That long line to place your order? That’s social proof that you’ve made the right decision. That long wait for your burger and fries? It’s worth it.


Great advertising is aspirational, reflecting what Charles Revson said years ago: "I don’t sell lipstick; I sell hope." Advertising closes the gap between who I am and who I want to be. But look at who Burger King appointed as early brand ambassadors: a creepy King and Herb the Nerd.

7. MAKE IT MEMORABLE What Burger King does get right is a catchy jingle that’s modern and uplifting. A catchy tune makes the message it delivers more memorable. Yes, music enhances recall of an advertised message and may even create more positive sentiments for the brand. If you can’t afford a jingle? Create a tagline that rhymes. As corny as it may seem, rhymed messages are perceived as more believable than unrhymed ones. Who can forget this: if it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

RECLAIM THE FLAME. That’s my take. What’s yours?


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