When I joined Burger King UK in February 2018, the marketing strategy was heavily weighted towards short-term discount promotions. These promotions had historically been reliable in driving footfall, with competitive price points on a range of recognisable but somewhat generic menu items. More recently, these offers were starting to lose their impact and did little to build brand engagement.
My own brand references for Burger King were rooted in 1980s and 1990s TV ads – fire, flame-grilling, the Whopper and a confident male American voiceover telling you to "have it your way". Despite impressive brand awareness of 97%, our brand consideration and conversion were declining for key segments. I soon discovered that this brand icon, the Whopper, had not been placed on TV for nearly 10 years. Whopper awareness was relatively weak and our differentiators were unknown to a new generation.
Research on this segment showed a clear lack of emotional connection with the brand and social listening studies supported this insight. It made for tough reading, but Twitter comments such as "Does Burger King still exist?" and "Wait, people still go to Burger King?" just highlighted the brand challenge we were facing.
Global markets for Burger King continued to build on brand strengths such as flame-grilling with disruptive and engaging campaigns. However, in the UK, we had stopped celebrating these strengths. While value-for-money perceptions were a specific challenge in our market, our ability to connect and re-establish Burger King with key customer segments could not be solved through aggressive pricing and promotions strategies alone. I felt the strategy needed a significant change in direction if we were to rebuild brand relevance for UK consumers.
We knew we needed to start talking about our most iconic product again. More than just a product play, the Whopper, our hero burger, represents the best of Burger King – big, bold, unpretentious, perfectly imperfect and you can have it your way. It’s what the brand was built on. Why not shout about it?
Working with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, we developed a campaign to relaunch the Whopper. We wanted to engage and educate a new audience, while reigniting consideration from lapsed customers. The campaign would launch with a Whopper mandate – a day where we would only serve the Whopper, kicking off a through-the-line campaign and confidently putting our flagship product front and centre.
While this approach made complete sense from a brand-building perspective, it was also a significant risk. Globally, Whopper was always accompanied by a price-point promotion, so we had no evidence of a campaign like this driving uplift.
This was new territory and, with so many unknowns, combined with high sales expectations, I needed to manage stakeholder concerns. I needed to gain buy-in across the business so that we could hold the campaign for long enough to measure the impact, knowing that many of the brand metrics would not be immediately evident.
We launched Whopper Day on 17 April, mandating the Whopper on Burger King menus in more than 500 stores and offering a free Whopper to anyone downloading the Burger King app. That week, sales of Whopper reached the highest levels ever seen and we ranked number one in app downloads.
We followed the launch with a sustained TV, outdoor and digital campaign, resulting in continued growth in same-store sales and traffic, outperforming the industry average. Brand consideration also improved – and we continue to track this.
There will always be challenges in balancing the strategic importance of longer-term brand-building while managing stakeholder expectations on short-term sales performance. The two are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they need to work in tandem to deliver the right results. This challenge can create a healthy tension for any brand owner. Sometimes you have to trust your instincts and take measured risks to effect a change.
Katie Evans is marketing director at Burger King UK and a member of Campaign’s Power 100