Marketing Agency Models Brand Purpose

What does Burger King want from its next creative and media agencies?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

March 2, 2022 | 8 min read

With its creative review well under way, what will Burger King be looking for in its next agency partner?

burger king

Burger King’s US creative and media accounts are up for review. Who will it pick?

Burger King isn’t just a sought-after treat for peckish pedestrians, it’s a prestige client for ad agencies the world over.

Its creative campaigns have been thought provoking and buzzy, talked about on the TV, in the press and on social. They have gained industry plaudits for its agencies – especially global agency-of-record David Miami – and for its former CMO Fernando Machado.

And yet in recent years it has steadily lost ground in its core US market to rivals such as Wendy’s, giving weight to criticism that its advertising – particularly the ’Moldy Whopper’ campaign – was designed with headlines rather than bottom lines in mind.

So parent company Restaurant Brands International’s review of its creative and media accounts for Burger King (alongside a media review for Popeyes and Tim Hortons) was a decision long in the post.

It means a winning incumbent – or new incoming agency – will have a meaty brief to deal with. So, what kind of agency might the brand choose?

Troubled kingdom

In the estimation of Robot Food’s Natalie Redford, Burger King is on the wrong side of too many shifts in consumer behavior. The urge for consumers to indulge, whether it’s called the ’pleasure revolution’ or ’treat brain’, is strong at the moment.

It is, she says, a ”drive for selfishness” that should make persuading punters to have a burger and fries for lunch an easy pitch. But while consumers want to treat themselves (many will have barely been inside a restaurant for the best part of the last two years, after all), they’ll want to do so without any accompanying guilt. ”We scrutinize our choices more,” says Redford. ”We want sustainability and for companies to do better, but at the same time we want to treat ourselves.”

Burger King has pledged that all of its packaging will be completely recyclable, and recycled, within the next three years. But its messaging has often focused on other aspects of its offer, leaving it at a deficit for consumers who care about the environment. In the minds of consumers, Redford says, ”sustainability is obviously going to one of the biggest issues… but for the most part, Burger King just can’t be sustainable – it’s the complete opposite nature to what it does and what it is”.

With rising inflation in the US and the UK hitting consumers in their wallets, its decision to introduce a $1 ’Your Way’ menu at the end of 2020 looks like a smart one. But it’s still up against established names in the value category; market leader McDonald’s, for example, has offered a $1 menu and a 99p ’Saver Menu’ in Britain for years, while Burger King’s is only available in the US.

Burger King has traditionally placed itself at the higher end of the category on price, but Redford argues that it has stopped justifying that position to customers.

”It will definitely have to justify that extra cost. And it will talk about the smokiness, the flame-grill technique, but that’s it. I think if you’re justifying yourself for a treat, you’ll need a little bit more. I would try and pull on the heartstrings a bit rather than just product, because if you go in and that product doesn’t actually live up to what you’ve been promised then all your customers are going be left feeling duped.”

Competition will surely be on the minds of executives at Restaurant Brands International. Last summer, when Wendy’s pigtails surpassed the King’s sales to take second place behind McDonald’s in the US burger market, The Drum’s own Ken Hein suggested its marketing had the edge on Burger King through better social, an established loyalty scheme, smart tie-ins such as its Rick and Morty pop-up and a willingness to explore new channels – both in its comms, with a Fortnite campaign, and in the kitchen with its new breakfast menu.

Even as its competitors have gained ground, its marketing above-the-line and on social has often served to highlight its rivalries. While that might enthuse core fans, notes Redford, it’s not as powerful a motivator for customers as emotionally intelligence advertising. ”It has to find its relevancy for people,” she says. ”You have to have that emotional nugget that nobody else can touch or own.”

Leo Burnett’s recent work highlighting the benefits of table service (in one case focusing in on exhausted parents) is one example of such messaging done well, she says. ”I liked the recent ’Me Time’ ad. It’s all about that sense of getting away, of peace and quiet. That’s a really good gauge of what people are after. It’s seeing real life reflected, which is what people really resonate with.”

Performance and loyalty focus

According to Laetitia Zinetti, managing director of continental Europe for marketing consultancy Ebiquity, the brand needs a partner that can fulfill a whole range of capabilities. Principally, she says data expertise will be key to ”generating insights that enable the creation and delivery of more relevant and impactful content” and for applications such as ”performance media to implement ‘last mile’ communications with geo encouraging potential consumers to visit close-by restaurants”.

”Loyalty and data-driven personalization, along with more digital ordering/delivery and data capabilities from measurement to insight, will be critical,” says Zinetti. The brand should also look for partners with strong expertise in social media, reaching multi-cultural audiences and precision marketing, she adds.

Although David and incumbent media agency Horizon have been invited to compete for the business, the departure of four major marketing leaders at Restaurant Brands International suggest they might have an uphill struggle ahead.

Zinetti suggests that the decision to review both creative and media will suit agencies with an integrated offer. KFC recently picked Dentsu creative shop Mullenlowe as its creative agency-of-record, adding it to a cross-agency team including Spark Foundry, Nimbus, Edelman and Basic.

”The idea is to assess if media and creative agencies can demonstrate they can deliver integrated strategic thinking, leverage adtech, process holistic touchpoints for branding and provide performance communications,” says Zinetti.

Furthermore, she says: ”Running the creative and media reviews in parallel can ensure the operating model is defined upfront and the roles of both agencies are well-defined – otherwise they run the risk of reinforcing existing silos.

”If the client issues two distinct briefs, it will be important to allow agency groups that want to participate in both to demonstrate the added value the client will benefit from if they select agencies from the same group, such as integrated planning process, a bespoke agency combining all talents and a single P&L.”

Creative shootout

Interested parties might look across the Atlantic for clues as to Restaurant Brands International’s frame of mind. The company just appointed a new PR agency, Splendid Communications, to its roster alongside BBH and social shop Coolr.

Alec Samways, chief executive at Splendid, says of the win: ”It’s an exciting yet challenging time for the category, but the team at Burger King UK are an inspiring bunch and we are fired up to join them in facing these challenges.”

He tells The Drum that the agency won the business after a ”creative shootout” that saw its team present a range of new ideas, some of them integrated proposals. Several are already being taken forward, he says, which suggests that the brand is still heavily committed to a creative-first approach.

Samways says eye-catching creative always has to be a priority of the brand. ”That’s the tone. It’s attention-grabbing, ’only-we-could-do-this’ ideas.

”Burger King wants to do stand out creativity. Sometimes you have to take us on a journey to get permission to do that, but Burger King arrived wanting that.”

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