Burger King's Struggling. Is Their Ad Agency to Blame?

BK continues to lose ground to McDonald's—and some are laying the blame on the creepy ads created by Crispin Porter+Bogusky. Hogwash.

burger king

Is the bizarro King overdue for a dethroning? That's the contention of The Atlantic's business blogger, Derek Thompson. Citing the fact that Burger King has increasingly lost ground to McDonald's and Wendy's since the advent of Crispin's surreal "King" marketing campaign, Thompson concludes that ad push isn't working:  

"To the surprise of nobody, Burger King's horrible, creepy advertisement campaign is not working, and the company finds itself falling further behind McDonald's according to just-released figures. This strikes a huge blow to the idea that what Americans want from their fast food joint is a Bobblehead King doll who sneaks into your bed, raps about square butts, and terrorizes you from outside your bedroom window. Yes, those were advertisements for hamburgers."

"In other words, thank you America, for compelling our elites to put the strategic back into strategic advertising."

Gawker is also piling on. But not so fast. The Ad Age article that's got them both shouting "A-ha!" actually paints a more subtle picture (despite its attention grabbing headline):

"The argument can be made, moreover, that BK was at the right place at the wrong time. Eyeing higher profit margins, BK focused its marketing guns on more expensive items targeted to so-called super fans, young men who theoretically care more about how "Meat'Normous" a burger is than how much it costs and who tend to be the most vociferous fast-food consumers. A smart strategy — until BK got caught flat-footed by a recession that played to McDonald's sweet spot: the value proposition it clearly owned and had honed over decades."

"And so the creative approach that put BK on the advertising map for the first time in years seems to have been reconsidered of late as the chain runs spots promoting its $1 Whopper Jr. in heavy rotation. "The mistake BK would readily admit now is that they didn't promote [value]," said Morgan Stanley analyst John Glass. "That's why they're playing catch-up now."

Before continuing, I should say a couple things in the interest of full disclosure: In 2003, before I began working in journalism, I was an analyst on the leveraged buyout deal for Burger King. Crispin was hired after I finished my work there, but I did work on the team that was turning around Burger King's marketing—specifically, on its product innovation, not its advertising. I have had no contact with Burger King or my former buyout-industry employers in over five years.  

With that out of the way, I want to point to the most salient fact about the fast food industry that Ad Age, Gawker, and The Atlantic missed: Advertising is a weak lever to effect change in a sprawling, franchised operation like Burger King. Why? First off, one of McDonald's historically brilliant moves was to own the land that its franchises sit upon—and to lease that land back to the franchise operator. Burger King—and most of its other competitors—don't have that arrangement. And that matters because as the land owner, McDonald's has leverage in redesigning its stores that its competitors sorely lack. Witness how well McDonald's is overhauling the design of its stores, and how lackluster those efforts have been at Burger King and Wendy's. Granted, part of that problem is that Burger King needs to hire better designers—as these hideous designs prove—but the fact remains that they can only do so much. Moreover, restaurant placement is also vitally important, and McDonald's has the best land in the business. 

Now, as the Ad Age article says, there are problems with Burger King's product mix, and the niche that the "King" ads try to carve. But their current woes have far more to do with structural weaknesses in the business, than their ads. And that's really the thing with ad agencies: They might promise a turnaround, but they seldom have the right conditions to pull one off. A turnaround of a place like Burger King is about doing many things at once—some of which might be impossible. 

Related Stories:
The Fast Company 50 - 2009: Crispin Porter + Bogusky Burger King Offers Free Whopper For Ditching Facebook Friends
'Kingon' Invasion: Burger King and Paramount Ink Blockbuster Marketing Deal
The Sizzling Secrets of In-N-Out Burger: Q&A With Stacy Perman

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  • Eric Buchegger

    While I am not a fan of Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s campaign, as I find the King to be quite creepy, I agree with Cliff Kuang. Burger King was caught by the recession, not moving quickly enough to offer value-based menu items, and their in-store experience leaves much to be desired. When I go to Subway, Quiznos, McDonalds and Wendy's, I know what I am getting; for the most part, in Vancouver BC, I find my experience to be quite consistent. McDonalds recently upgraded their stores, they are cleaner, more modern looking, and have TVs. Not quite as cozy and inviting as Starbucks, but a vast improvement. When I walk into a Burger King, I feel like I am back in the 80s.

  • Michael Nicolson

    Has anyone been in a Burger King lately? Their problem has mostly to do with filth.

  • Randy Lyken

    The last time I tried burger king fries, it tasted like it was run through a trash conveyor belt that wasn't cleaned for a week! Or peeled potatoes that were scooped up off the floor with a dirty shovel!

  • Yvette Cummings

    After reading a few of these comments, I just had to put my two cents in on the cleaniness of the BK restaurants - there is none. Their bathrooms are the worse, they are always dirty, always out of tissue and/or paper towels, the floors are always wet with either water or urine and I can't count how many times I've gone in one to find a dirty pale of water with a mop stuck in it. They are always running out of things, the condiment section is always dirty, the soda machines are always either out of a certain drink or not working properly, and I've actually gotten tired of watching some guy with his pants hanging down off his behind preparing my food. But the kicker was one day sitting in a BK restaurant eating and watching a mouse run across the floor in the kid section of the restaurant. That did it for me! The whopper was once my favorite burger, but not anymore. I used to go to BK for a whopper and go to McD's for their fries and a shake.

  • Michael Kristof

    When you see print ads like this; http://post.ly/10sI you have to wonder what's going on. Why is the ad agency making recommendations to run ads like this and why is the Burger King marketing department approving them? Seems to me that BK needs to make some changes.

  • Adam Kmiec

    Many of the things you are indicating are Burger King business decisions are actually CP+B decisions. It's well documented that CP+B demands full control. For BK this included the store design, 1800 call # script, packaging, and yes even the menu. When you let your agency run your business and they hit a home run - you were the smart savvy client. When you let them run your business and you fail, well start looking for a new job.

  • Andrew Collins

    It's very simple - in a recession we all want value. BK are a close 3rd on this.

  • Robert Gayler


  • A.K. Law

    My issues with BK go down to the basics. I want a clean restaurant and the products on the menu. The stores in and around Morris, IL are always dirty and out of various items. They have been out of ice (don't know how you run out of ice), apple fries (I have the only child that hates french fries), and they consistently don't have the popular toys (good luck finding Pokemon).

    When your bathroom reminds you of a scene in Trainspotting, you know its time to drive down the road to the next fast food place.

  • Richard Lipscombe

    I was reading this article with a voice over inside my head. My voice over kept making the point that this had little if anything to do with 'push advertising' it is all about .... then you said it too.. "Moreover, restaurant placement is also vitally important, and McDonald's has the best land in the business. We are in sync. Stop wasting money on advertising BK. Improve your outlets, service, placement of outlets, etc. Use modern viral marketing to boost your Brand Equity (if such a thing exists anymore). What is the word on the street? What do they want - they want meat. Give them meat. Make sure you supply it where they are and where they get hungry for their meat fix. Problem fixed.

  • David Osedach

    Get real! Fire the agency and start over again. Burger King has a great product mix.

  • TastyJon Evans

    Their fries suck. Really. Wendy's and McDonalds have good fries.
    Most combo meals ordered at these places include fries, so if they aren't good, 33% of the meal is unappealing.

  • Mark Sturgell

    Well, I'm not going to make a purchasing decision based on advertising, but I do form attitudes towards a brand based on advertising(whether I like to admit it or not. These days, my image of Burger King is, indeed, "creepy". At my age, I can't, won't and don't pursue burgers as voraciously as I once did, but if I want a fast-food burger I want a Whopper. Yet I typically don't buy them. Why? Burger Kind knows nothing about building Customer Loyalty; frankly, I'm not even sure if the understand much about the more superficial and less important issue of customer satisfaction. This is a systemic problem, as Cliff Kuang points out in this article. Creepy King doesn't draw me to eat Whoppers at all - he represents all the other things I don't like about my experiences as a customer of Burger King. They do not have the training system of McDonalds, or any other system including such things as property ownership that most consumers never think about. They certainly didn't create loyal customers in my children the way McD's has - a major driver of my purchasing decisions, unfortunately for my tastes. When it gets down to it, the product matters less than the customer experience with the company, and the Creepy King represents that experience all too well.

  • Michael McDonnell

    It might also have something to do with the fact that their food is terrible.

  • Mic Gunderson

    I boycotted Burger King more than 2 years ago. My family and I refuse to spend a cent there. These decisions were based solely and completely on the offensive, ridiculous, and unbelievably lame advertisements. Likewise, we boycotted Wendy's due to the obnoxious and creepy idiot in the red pigtail wig. As much as I don't like McDonald's (I watched Super Size Me), I'll spend money there in a heartbeat, because their ads, for the most part, treat me like a sensible human being.

    The Whopper used to be my favorite fast food hamburger. The ads caused me to give it up. Blame the ads, because they are the reason!