The Inside Story on Why Burger King Sells Red Burgers in Japan

What Better Way to Get Some Brand Attention on a Tight Budget?

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The Aka Samurai from Burger King Japan. There's also a version with chicken.
The Aka Samurai from Burger King Japan. There's also a version with chicken.

Even in a land of relentlessly wacky fast food innovations, Burger King Japan has nabbed a lot of attention with its all-black burgers. There's just something about the sight of pitch-black buns and cheese that really gets to people.

Starting Friday, Burger King Japan is launching an all-red burger, with red-colored cheese, buns and, obviously, hot sauce. A Google search turned up more than 150 headlines in English alone on the new creation, which will be on sale through August 20.

The reports have covered the basics, but we wanted to know more. Starting with, why?

Burger King Japan's general manager for business management, Masanori Tatsuiwa, who worked previously at agencies including Ogilvy & Mather Japan, answered a few questions about the red Aka Samurai Burger (buns and cheese tinted with tomato powder), the black Kuro Burger (which used bamboo charcoal and squid ink), as well as the brand's "flame-grilled" personal fragrance.

Ad Age: Where do these ideas come from, and what's your process?

Burger King Japan's black burger.
Burger King Japan's black burger.

Mr. Tatsuiwa: We sit down with marketing and R&D look for something unusual. When we start to think about something, we have taste tests inside the restaurant. We have 93 restaurants in Japan, and we will be opening our 100th restaurant this year.

At the moment we don't have much ad budget in our hands, so we do almost everything by ourselves. We are not using any creative agencies for these products. And this way we don't need any big money to expand our awareness in the market.

Burger King is not big compared to the competitor companies in Japan. McDonald's has about 3,000 restaurants in Japan. The local MOS Burger chain has almost 1,400 restaurants. (Editor's note: Burger King re-entered Japan in 2007, after a first attempt had failed after eight years in 2001 amid tough fast food competition.)

Ad Age: How big is your marketing team?

Mr. Tatsuiwa: Five people. Including R&D.

Ad Age: So, why red this time?

Mr. Tatsuiwa: This is the fourth year we've had a black burger, and we were wanted to have something new happen this year. And we were also thinking about the Burger King "Angry Whopper," (a jalapeno-laden rendition of the classic), that launched in some markets, but with the color the same as usual. Brown. We thought making it red would make people curious and express the hot taste.

Ad Age: Are other markets picking up on these ideas?

Mr. Tatsuiwa: Burger King Singapore has a black burger and a white burger this year. Burger King Malaysia has a black burger called the Ninja.

Ad Age: On April 1 you had a one-day-only sale of something called "Flame-Grilled Fragrance." (The 1,000-piece limited edition flasks sold for $41 and came with a Whopper. They sold out.) Why a perfume?

Mr. Tatsuiwa: The idea came from Burger King in the U.S., they had a perfume several years ago. We thought we could use that for April 1, which we already introduced as "Whopper Day" in Japan.

The word "whopper" means a kind of big lie, and April 1 is April Fool's Day, when people can tell lies or jokes to each other. We applied for and were permitted to have April 1 as Whopper Day in Japan by the Japan Anniversary Association in 2014.

We were thinking if we announced a launch for this kind of perfume for April 1, some people might think it wasn't true (and that would generate more conversations about it). But we seriously produced this product, and that was very effective. We collaborated with a local perfume company and asked them to produce a flame-grilled smell. It was a very unique order for them. They worked very hard on it.

Ad Age: How were sales?

Mr. Tatsuiwa: It was a record for one-day sales on a weekday.