Last month, Burger King UK made the decision to remove all plastic toys from its kids menu. The Drum catches up with Burger King and the agency that led the campaign, Jones Knowles Ritchie (JKR), to find out how they prepared to avoid kids having a ‘meltdown’ when the toys were no longer available.
Collectable and responsive to popular culture, the fast-food chain's toys tempt children to tug at their parents’ sleeves until they enter the Burger King threshold. However, the love affair between child and toy is often short-lived. This cycle has been part of Burger King’s story since it first started offering a free toy in its junior meals, with an estimated 320 tonnes of single-use plastic being used annually.
With sustainability in mind, the fast food chain decided to end this cycle by removing plastic toys from all kids meals in the UK, while providing a bin for people to donate their plastic toys – including ones found in rival McDonald’s Happy Meals – to be melted down sustainably.
“As a business, we knew we needed to make a positive step forward by addressing the plastic toys that have historically given away in our King Junior meals,” explained Katie Evans, marketing director at Burger King UK. “So initially the ambition was to come up with an alternative sustainable solution to these toys in the UK.”
A bold move, that needed careful planning to ensure it didn’t run the risk of children opting for fast food joints that still offered the added-extra toy.
Evans was introduced to Jonny Spindler, managing director of JKR UK, which had already worked with Burger King in the US.
“Katie said she had a couple of exciting design-led projects,” added Spindler, “and the first was this interesting packaging project for our kid’s meal, which is line with a broader sustainable push.”
Evans explained that while this would originally start as a UK project, she had ambitions for it to be implemented globally across all Burger King stores. She asked Spindler to help the business see how different things would be if plastic toys were no longer offered.
"Katie told me – we need something engaging and entertaining to prove that it is possible to remove them without impacting the business and upsetting kids,” Spindler said.
24 hours later, Spindler was back on the phone - earlier than Evans had anticipated. The team, inspired by the meeting, had already found the ‘alternative.’ Why not make the actual act of recycling the engaging and entertaining part, in itself?
Burger King would ask kids to donate their plastic toys via amnesty bins in store, which would be melted down sustainably to developed into recycled play area for a selection of stores in 2020.
“We told her we already had the nugget of the idea,” Spindler said. “What happens if we literally go out and create this thing called ‘The Meltdown.’”
A versatile name, with many meanings, Evans says the name was a"very visual and engaging representation of what we were doing.” JKR chose the name, as it meant the physical meltdown of the plastics; it’s what they are intending to avoid when removing the toy and it alludes to the melting of ice caps that scientists suggest is a direct consequence of climate change.
Spurred on by 'War on Plastic'
And so ‘The Meltdown’ seed was sown. “Once they came back to us with ‘The Meltdown’ we knew this idea would allow us to make a wider statement, and lead the industry towards more sustainable practices, driving the engagement we needed to see change,” Evans explained.
As if often the case with most environmentally conscious movements, it’s the kids that incite change. Back in July, two young girls from Southampton, Ella and Caitlin aged nine and seven, gathered 400,000 signatures that called upon McDonald’s and Burger King giveaways to be made from sustainable materials in order to protect the environment.
The sisters appear on BBC’s War on Plastic and during the programme they help take a trailer load of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys to the fast-food chain's headquarters. However, the sisters’ demonstrative stunt was cut short by a security guard who escorted them off the property.
Although it was widely suggested at the time of the campaign’s launch that Burger King’s decision to stop children’s toys was in response to the girls’ petition – it reveals otherwise, saying it merely spurred them on a journey it was already on.
“It demonstrated that there was a very public demand for it,” Evans admitted. “So we decided to go for it, it didn’t need a test run – we needed to act now and get this out to the world immediately.”
“This was pre the BBC Documentary with Ella and Caitlin,” insists Jonny Spindler, managing director at JKR. “I know it looks quite reactive to it. But a few days after we got the brief, Katie rang me to say I’ve been approached by the BBC for the next episode on the war on plastics.”
And so the idea was born, but how to bring it to life? “We talked about the execution of it. Burger King does a good job of that cross-generational and cross-demographic engagement. How do you do something that really engages parents, and is equally entertaining for their children?” asked Spindler.
Spindler said the team was inspired by Toy Story on how to create something that feels adult, but also child-friendly, as it is a series that engages the whole family.
“Early on, we saw that fantastic clip in 'Toy Story 3,' where the toys are falling into a furnace,” Spindler recalled. “It inspired us for the work. It’s got that irreverent Burger King style, while it’s a little edgy. Sometimes it’s a bit scary, but it also feels very PG.”
They then developed a whole cast of melting characters, which Evans said was “to get kids on board, and to bring to life the positive impact this change will have on the environment and communities.”
A jeep-driving bunny - Beep Beep; an oversized robot - Mr Hugglesworth; and a wind-up T-Rex – Roary - "designed to highlight the growing problem disposable toys are causing the environment and, through their distinctive personalities, create an emotional connection to sustainability for the next generation of consumers," Evans explained.
To activate it at the launch, they used recycled materials to create a giant statue featuring one of the campaign characters - 'Beep Beep' - melting on the Southside.
The meltdown campaign also took over its Leicester Square restaurant in another activation, that included a designed exterior to represent the meltdown. Inside the restaurant, campaign visuals were featured with special edition packaging and staff uniforms created especially.
Now, it's a waiting game as Burger King looks to introduce the scheme outside of the UK. “Now that king junior plastic toys are permanently off the menu in the UK, work is currently underway across all of our markets to look at how we can completely move away from non-biodegradable plastic toys by 2025,” Evans detailed.
And the entertainment is also forthcoming. Kids are still hungry for an experience, so the toys will be transformed into play areas and playful experiences that last longer than a few minutes, with recycled play areas for a selection of stores due to arrive in 2020.