Smoke Gets In Their Eyes

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Burger King is trying to throw more raw meat on the grill by redirecting marketing funds normally spent by franchisees, and using it to run more corporate branding. We’re talking $25 million next year, and $40 million every year through 2022.

Its National Franchise Association, which represents the vast majority of those franchisees, has filed two lawsuits to stop it. As I possess friend of the Whopper status, I’d like to submit a brief in support of the complaints.

The dynamic between "corporate" and "the field" has always been dicey when it comes to spending marketing money. Headquarters like to focus on communicating the brand, and other long-term things that, arguably, the mother ship should worry about. The field — whether franchisees, dealerships, or stores of any kind — have more immediate, short-term interests at heart…namely, selling stuff this afternoon. Finding an uneasy middle-ground is how most marketing campaigns get realized.

Burger King has made such detente impossible. Lately, it has aggressively pursued some of the most notable, expensive, and utterly pointless branding the world has ever seen. 

Campaigns on Facebook. Edgy videos, like "Whopper Virgins," scripted and shot to be forwarded via email. An entire campaign and website dedicated to a cologne that smells like broiled meat.  Bikini-clad BK Girls in New Zealand. And the incessant, widespread appearances of its creepy mascot, in everything from television spots, to video games and Halloween masks.

This is a company that, back in 2006, decided that its corporate marketing mandate was to "participate in the collective conversation," and has pioneered many inventive, edgy ways to get consumers to interact with its brand. In fact, it has helped define the wonderfully circular school of thought that says the purpose of branding is to get people to interact with your branding.

It just doesn’t sell Whoppers. Hence the lawsuit.

While Burger King has been receiving accolades from inside the branding fishbowl, the business of retailing burnt cow and potatoes has been decided by product development, menu offerings, store cleanliness, service quality, price, and all the less-sexy things that bore creative marketers, but actually matter to hungry customers. McDonald’s has out-performed Burger King during some of the quarters in which the nonsense branding activities peaked…by focusing on those very things that drive consumption. 

There’s no connection between Burger King’s participation in the supposed "collective conversation," and any sales or profits. The franchisees must know this, just like they know that no business can survive if all its customers do is think about its products. 

Reality matters, no matter how expertly the branding gurus have worked to obscure (or ignore) this fact.

Of course, the lawsuits could be the result of the operators wanting to keep the cash to spend on their own pet projects instead of those at corporate. They’re not inherently going to be smarter or better at making marketing decisions, per se.

But the best brands are built by a real integration and, gasp, recognition and coordination of business strategy and communications. Branding run amok, however brilliantly it prompts impromptu and passing conversation, doesn’t build anything except the bank accounts of those responsible for creating it. Generally, it’s a tax on those who are tasked with earning it.

Maybe the franchisees are finally seeing through the smoke, and want to use marketing dollars to sell more hamburgers (and build the brand accordingly)?

Here’s the video version.

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