What was Burger King thinking?

This article originally appeared as a blog post for a course on Integrated Marketing Communication Strategies at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

Burger King - Tim Hortons

When Miami-based Burger King (BKC) announced its acquisition of Tim Hortons on August 26, the pundits went wild and consumers made mincemeat out of Burger King on social media. While the burger chain claimed they wanted to leverage their new Canadian partner’s breakfast expertise, financial analysts immediately started debating the financial benefits of Burger King relocating from the U.S. to a country with lower corporate taxes—a move known as “corporate inversion.” While it’s tempting to focus on this controversy, the back story of how BKC got to this point is far more interesting.

Lest we forget, Burger King is the second-largest burger brand in the world, forever living in the shadows of McDonald’s and desperately trying to differentiate itself from the golden arches. With its emphasis on the grilling process—is the Whopper “flame broiled,” “flame grilled,” or “cooked with fire”?—Burger King has tried to create a niche for itself in a crowded fast food market. While McDonald’s ranked seventh on Interbrand’s Best Global Brands list in 2013, Burger King didn’t even crack the top 100.

Have it your way

In the early 2000s, Burger King was struggling. In 2003, ad agency Young & Rubicam reported that it was “a brand that people knew more than loved.” The fast food company made a strategic decision to focus on “super fans,” the young males who accounted for about half of all restaurant visits. While McDonald’s decided to focus on healthier offerings and the McCafé concept, Burger King doubled down on its super fans, with bigger and more indulgent burger offerings. Working with ad and design company Crispin Porter + Bogusky, they launched the “Have it your way” slogan, which became central to all their marketing efforts. BKC also launched the “King” character mascot, using an edgy, slightly creepy sense of humor designed to reach the 18-34-year-old male demographic. The company’s marketing plan focused on unconventional channels for reaching customers, including emerging digital platforms—most memorably its “Subservient Chicken” website, one of the first big viral marketing hits.

With all of these successful marketing efforts, you’re probably wondering what could possibly have gone wrong. Well, Burger King didn’t anticipate that 2008 would usher in a recession and a crusade against trans fats. All of a sudden, consumers wanted cheaper, healthier options and BKC was out of sync with the zeitgeist. By 2010, McDonald’s was 100% ahead of Burger King in average domestic revenue per unit. At the end of 2010, BKC was acquired by 3G Capital and a whole new management team was brought in. Ever since, Burger King has been trying to regain some momentum.

Blame Canada?

The most recent announcement of BKC’s acquisition of Tim Hortons has stirred up controversy about the company’s move to Canada. The deal will create a new parent company with an $18-million market value, making it one of the biggest fast food companies in the world, and each brand will continue to operate independently as before. While the deal has come under fire from the White House and consumers alike, it is actually part of a long-term plan. It coincides with an effort to revamp BKC’s menu offerings and its marketing strategy.

Not only has the King mascot been retired and the ad campaign humor become safer, BKC has targeted a more diverse customer base with healthier, more price-conscious products. Its biggest weakness remains its breakfast menu, and the fast food breakfast wars are heating up. It is no coincidence that Tim Hortons' greatest strength is its breakfast menu, which undoubtedly accounts for a large part of BKC’s motivation in acquiring the brand. Amid the commotion of the acquisition, many consumers may have missed the news that Burger King has changed its motto this year, to “Be your way.” However, few people missed the launch of a new all-black BKC burger in Japan, which temporarily drowned out the controversy about corporate inversion and demonstrated that the public is not necessarily hostile to the brand.

Burger King black burger available in Japan

Burger King has been looking for a way forward, to market its product successfully into the future, and it seems to have found a moment in time when consumers are aware of the brand again and their sentiment can be influenced. While there is dissatisfaction with the move to Canada, people are talking about Burger King and it is up to the company to own the conversation by communicating its intentions to all stakeholders. Could the Burger King leaders use this opportunity to pursue their marketing goals and finally have it their way?