Burger King Worldwide Inc.’s announcement of an agency review in early January — its third agency shakeup since its 2011 split with longtime shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky — likely will not derail its marketing strategy to pivot toward “fewer, more impactful” product launches and campaigns, industry observers said.
The Miami-based quick-service chain has not only worked with four different agencies in less than three years but also has been through a handful of chief marketing officers since longtime CMO Russ Klein, who ushered in Burger King’s seven-year relationship with Crispin, resigned in December 2009.
But just because the brand’s current global chief marketing officer, Axel Schwan, is hunting for a new lead agency does not mean marketing plans have come to a halt, sources said.
Turnover in the lead-agency slot or the CMO’s office are not ideal, but they are common enough in the quick-service industry that Burger King should be able to manage through the transition period with its marketing strategy relatively in tact, said Richard Coad, chief creative officer for Washington-based MDB Communications.
“They haven’t been hobbled by the agency search,” Coad said. “There are only two tools brands have in this situation: You either get a new marketing director, or if that guy keeps his job, he calls an agency search.”
Burger King declined to comment on the agency review while it is still in progress.
See the timeline below for a history of Burger King's major marketing moves.
The four firms that have worked with Burger King over the past two and a half years — Mother New York, The Pitch Agency, David and McGarryBowen — likely are still producing creative work for the brand, ensuring some marketing continuity until the next agency of record is named, Coad said.
“In fast food, this is really common, because the brands are so sales-oriented,” he said. “Any group with a franchisee base they have to tend to forever has its feet to the fire. Sales go down a little bit, and the natives are restless.”
One Burger King franchisee, Atlanta-based GPS Hospitality, has experienced the brand’s marketing only in its post-Crispin instability. The company entered the Burger King system by acquiring 42 refranchised restaurants in October 2012. But while the chain is looking for yet another new agency, GPS still views it as “an iconic brand” and remains bullish on future prospects, chief executive Tom Garrett said.
“We’re convinced it’s in the midst of a turnaround,” said Garrett, the former president and chief executive of Arby’s Restaurant Group who previously was president of that chain’s largest franchisee, RTM Restaurant Group.
Earlier this month, GPS bought another 15 Burger King restaurants in West Virginia and southeast Ohio from Charton Management Inc. Garrett’s group is also on track to remodel 29 of the 42 Atlanta-area stores it purchased from Burger King Worldwide by the end of 2015.
GPS plans to open or acquire 200 Burger Kings by 2018 and will remodel many of those locations, he added. Garrett admitted that “all the pieces aren’t in place yet” for Burger King’s marketing, but he praised how proactive the franchisor has been to fix that part of the business.
“We’re no more satisfied with the marketing than the [executive] team in Miami is, but what I appreciate about them is that they’re action-oriented and smart and move very quickly,” Garrett said. “They refine the plan as needed and move with a sense of urgency. … You’re seeing in 2014 several changes in the marketing strategy beyond the agency change, whether it’s the number of products, the simplification of the menu or the focus on franchisee profitability.”
Finding its way
Burger King’s marketing strategy has evolved several times since it cut ties with Crispin Porter + Bogusky in March of 2011, and the brand’s same-store sales have had corresponding peaks and valleys.
In June of 2011, McGarryBowen won Burger King’s account and immediately transitioned the chain’s marketing away from the offbeat advertising featuring the The King, for which Crispin had been known.
By January 2012, however, Burger King decided to move to a roster of agencies without one lead shop, and Mother and David were brought in to produce campaigns along with McGarryBowen. The Pitch Agency had been Burger King’s firm for children’s marketing and was invited to expand its portfolio with more branding opportunities.
Burger King launched its revamped menu in April 2012 using Mother’s celebrity-focused commercials, which contributed to a 4.4-percent gain in domestic same-store sales during the second quarter of that year. Mother was named Burger King’s lead agency in February 2013.
However, the chain’s domestic same-store sales moderated back to a 0.5-percent decrease in the second quarter of 2013. That figure improved only slightly to a 0.3-percent decrease in the third quarter when Alexandre Macedo, president of Burger King North America, indicated that Burger King would dial back the number of product introductions and campaigns to be “more impactful,” like the Satisfries rollout.
The Satisfries introduction was Mother’s last campaign for Burger King. When the brand announced the agency review the first week of January 2014, it was running a national campaign for its breakfast platform created by The Pitch Agency.
Coad, the chief creative officer at MDB Communications, said that if Burger King is still determined to reach beyond the young-male audience that gravitated toward Crispin’s advertising, its marketing strategy of fewer campaigns to aggressively support individual products likely could work.
“Pizza Hut did it for years, where they picked a product and did a great ad campaign around it, and it accrued the reputation for having great products,” he said. “That vertical strategy around individual items is a fine thing to do — if you spend the money necessary to do it.”
Recent franchisee Garrett supported Burger King’s plans to do just that, believing the “fewer, more impactful” approach begun last September with the launch of Satisfries would turn things around this year.
“In 2013, the brand tried to do way too much,” Garrett said. “What happens with fewer campaigns is you get consolidation of media from a purchasing standpoint, then efficiency and then more dollars moving from local back to national [advertising].”
At the close of the third quarter of 2013, Burger King had 13,259 restaurants worldwide, including 7,404 locations in the United States and Canada.